“I don’t know, I’m not certain you’ll be able to get the exact van you want in the time you specify.” My dad was pulling flakes of bass on to his fork. The Mediterranean was lapping opposite us, a pool of treacle in the warm autumn night.
“Yes of course I will! Just think positive. It will happen.”
Dad munched on the fish, expressionless.
“But how will you convert it? And live in it?”
“How hard can it be? I’ll stick a small wood burner in it, and a sink. That’s all I need. I’ve seen it on Youtube.”
My long-suffering dad placed his fork heavily onto the tablecloth and picked up his beer glass. I just knew what he was thinking. You’ll be staying in my house until you finish this project, won’t you?
That had been October. But since that balmy evening in Adrasan bay, much had changed.
On November 8th, Rotty and I flew from Turkey to Amsterdam, then boarded a train to the Hook of Holland, and finally we crossed a steely North Sea via a Stenaline ferry. My dad picked us up from Harwich on the cold, dark night of November 10th, a night pulled out of a tale. The wind buffeted the car as it roared round the back lanes of Essex, hedgerows swaying wildly.
Here I was at last. In the UK. As Dad predicted, I camped in his spare room, belongings salvaged from Turkey piled up in the corners. From my bed, I could see the blue weave of my Anatolian rug spilling out of a suitcase. My dog was curled up in the front room, my jigsaw was stored in the back.
Yes. It’s not easy to be a parent sometimes. Children never grow up.
For the next week I relished the central heating from my perch on the sofa, laptop open, scouring the virtual forecourts of Ebay, desperately searching for a van. I hummed and hawed, until my dad lowered his newspaper. “I think you need to speak to Ian,” he said. Ian ran the local garage.
So it was one morning, I bumbled down to the Wivenhoe garage, sheaths of Ebay printouts in hand. Opening the door, I was greeted by a small office characteristically decorated with MOT sheets, mugs of tea, and clumps of car keys skulking in niches like silver jagged-legged insects. Soon Ian appeared from a door out back wearing a blue boiler-suit and looking suitably mechanic-like. I thrust my A4 winnings under his nose.
Now, what I didn’t realise then was that there is a secret society of campervan enthusiasts strewn the width and breadth of the British Isles. These vansters come in all sorts of unexpected shapes and sizes; anglers, golfers, consultants, pensioners, writers, artists, surfers to name but a few. If you’re really lucky you’ll meet one who is a mechanic.
“Hmm...” Ian peered through his glasses at my paper offerings. “Nope. Nope. Nope.” The white sheets hit the worktop in a flurry of clear-cut rejection. Another mechanic appeared, also boiler-suited. He glanced over Ian’s shoulder. “Urgh Ford Transit,” he said, and shook his head.
“What’s wrong with them?” I began to gather up the papers, holding them to my chest.
“Van conversions...” Ian’s face was deadpan. He let out a long, experienced sigh. “Looks like a great idea, dunnit? But what you’ve gotta remember is..." and he paused here to sigh again. "...White Van Man’s been driving these full pelt round the country for a decade. You need somethin’ with less than 80 000 on the clock. At least then you know it’s got a bit of life in it.”
“Oh. Well yes, I’m going to travel Europe in it, so I don’t want it to conk out on me.”
Ian looked me up and down very dubiously. “‘Ow much you lookin’ to spend?”
There was a sucking in of breath, followed by various protracted facial movements. Cheeks inflated and deflated. Finally the verdict came. “Well, it is what it is, innit?" Another sigh. "It is what it is.”
Standing there in the garage office, I clutched at my vision, albeit a little forlornly. I had to find something cheap, because I didn’t want to throw all my money into a vehicle. I needed land. That was my first priority.
“Why don’t you have a look round my van. I’ll show you what to check for before you buy one. It’s out back.” Ian nodded at the door.
Outside, the air was a cold, wet glue that stuck to everything. Even the concrete forecourt seemed to secrete it. As we walked through the grey, I shivered and dug my head lower into my coat.
At the back of the garage, Ian’s camper was parked. It was an enormous cartouche of wheeled, sheeny splendour. A proper motorhome. Opening the door, I stepped into the carpeted, closeted opulence of the vehicle. It was more comfort than I’d seen in five years. Ian was in the secret society. In style.
“How much did this cost?” I asked blinking. Because this was a house not a van.
“More than £3000,” he said and chuckled. “But these things don’t lose their value like vans.”
That comment slid over me. But fragments of it must have come loose and adhered to my skin, waiting for the right time.
In the coming month, I made countless trips to the Wivenhoe garage armed with an ever increasingly perfected wad of printouts. Ian said “It is what it is,” quite a lot. Every now and again, one or two of my choices were deemed ‘worth a look’. My dad drove me all over south east England chasing these van leads. We endured a loose-lipped caravan dealer in Epping, I reversed a camper for the first time in a Norfolk farm, Dad jump-started a van in Ipswich, I drove a motorhome round a doctor’s car park in Saxmundham. But there was always something not quite right. I just didn’t get 'that' feeling.
The reason none of them worked for me, was because I’d already been smitten. I’d seen a van the first week I’d arrived in England, because it was parked rather auspiciously opposite my dad’s house. (Ain't that always the way?)
“I heard they want to get rid of that,” Dad had said. This information had reached him via the well-greased cables of Wivenhoe’s grapevine.
The van had been parked in the drive of a beautiful 17th century cottage. I had knocked on the door, and a friendly lady had appeared. “Yes, we are thinking of selling it, but haven’t got round to putting it on the market yet,” she had said, before disappearing to find her key.
Soon I was inside the van. I sat on the plush sofa exhaling happily. It was perfect. Spacious, clean, and beautiful. Not too big, not too cramped. A dream van. Just right for me and Rotty. But it was over budget. Way over. So I had there and then pushed it over the periphery of my quest.
Motorhomes don’t lose their value like vans.
Eventually, the motes of that comment collected and congealed into an idea. Because if this mini motorhome wasn’t going lose too much of its value, perhaps it was worth investing in. If nothing else, it would stop me from spending everything I had.
So it was in mid-December, I bought the very van that was parked opposite my Dad's house. Ian said "It is what it is," again, before charging the battery and driving it to the garage. I cleaned it courtesy of the Wivenhoe garage's brush, and spent a fair while hunched over the manual trying to comprehend the geekery of the gadgets. The convenience amazed me. There was an oven, a sink, a toilet. Even hot water, something I hadn’t known for five years.
Before Christmas it was taxed, insured and ready to go. All I had to do was drive it...
Many many thanks to my dear dad, without whom this would all have been so much more difficult, and of course to Ian at the garage for sharing his wisdom.
Atulya K Bingham
"This is such a compelling book. It will make you want to abandon everything you know, move to the forest and commune with the trees and earth." Luisa Lyons, actor, writer and musician.
"Inspiring and beautifully written."
The Owner Builder Magazine.