I’ve been absent from blogging for some months now, for all sorts of reasons. Principally, none of the shows I regularly blog about were on air since the mediocre end to The Walking Dead’s eighth season, and without the self discipline that comes from writing about a new episode each week, I didn’t have much writing incentive.
I’m also still trying to put my life back together after my traumatic split with Barry, my longtime partner, which also resulted in me having to move out of the house and live on my own for the first time in my life. And I still haven’t come up with much of a plan, but at least it was summer and the weather was lovely (a little too lovely, with some rather oppressive heat) So I didn’t spend much time in the house and became a rather too frequent habitue of the local pub.
Which is nice, and I got to spend time with lots of my friends from the area, but there is such a thing as too much fun. Especially if it involves a lot of Newcastle Brown Ale. Thankfully, my recent run of fairly ill fortune seemed to suddenly turn around; good things were starting to happen, and there was, for the first time in months, a sense of hope for the future.
So I bought a campervan.
As you may remember from earlier posts (I’m not too proud of the self-pity but I’ll let them stand as a record of how I was feeling at that time), I’d had the idea of trying full time van living as a means of saving money and having the freedom to visit friends anywhere I wanted without needing to worry about getting home. I’d been inspired by this guy, Mike Hudson (aka Vandog Traveller), who self- converted an old LGV Convoy into a home on wheels back in 2013 and is still living in it to this day.
Unfortunately, I tried to run before I could walk with the idea. I bought an old Ford Transit Luton box van, figuring it would be easy to convert since the back is basically square and there’s a space for a bed over the cab. As early as the drive back from where I bought it, it was clear there was going to be trouble – the engine cut out in the middle lane of the A1, leaving me stranded there with my hazards on while vehicles whizzed by at probably illegal speeds. It seemed there was something more wrong with the engine than I’d realised.
Not only was that true, but things got worse with a letter from the lettings agency of my bungalow telling me I couldn’t keep the van there and would have to move it… somewhere. I could hardly try to fix the engine with it parked on the street, much less carry out a conversion to a motorhome. So I had to sell it, which took three attempts on eBay due to timewasters. It eventually sold for about a third of what I paid for it.
That was really depressing (it felt like the universe was delighting in making my life difficult at that point), but I hadn’t given up on the idea. Even while I was going through the annoying months of trying to shift the van on eBay, I was thinking of an alternative plan – buy one that was already converted (or coachbuilt that way from the start) so I can start using it straight away. The idea gave me contradictory feelings of disappointment and relief. I’d really wanted to build it myself as a project, but at the same time, well, I wouldn’t have to take the time or do the work.
Obviously I couldn’t do anything about it till I’d sold the old van, so the months of it lingering on eBay were really frustrating. I kept finding examples that looked interesting, but had to watch them be sold to other people because I couldn’t do anything about it until the Transit was gone.
Finally though it was, so I started looking in earnest. I wasn’t sure precisely what I wanted, and my first trip was to look at a converted Mercedes Sprinter minibus in Birkenhead, 150 miles from where I live. The Sprinter drove beautifully, and I was really impressed with that, but the living space conversion just needed too much doing – no oven, shower broken, and no power inverter to run AC devices from the 12v DC leisure batteries. On the long drive home I mulled it over, and eventually came to the conclusion that one wasn’t for me.
I was going to look at a few more, but one came up on eBay that seemed to have everything I needed. A converted 2005 LDV Convoy minibus (so the same basic model as Mike Hudson’s), it had a fixed double bed at a normal height, cooker, fridge, heating, shower, toilet, and all professionally transferred from a caravan by a caravan fitter. In the photos at least, it looked way better than the Sprinter I’d just looked at.
It also had a brand new clean MOT. Now, I’ve been caught out with those before, but these days you can check the last fifteen years or so of vehicle MOTs on the DVLA website, which lists any failures or advisories at any one. This LDV had almost never failed, and then on trivial things like the handbrake cable, many years ago.
This was a relisting, and only had a few days to run, so I didn’t have much of a chance to travel the 100 miles for a look before bidding. I called the seller that evening, and he seemed genuine enough. He confirmed that, as well as the stuff listed on eBay, it had a few other things I’d been specifically wanting, such as an inverter to convert the leisure batteries’ DC output to 230V AC, and an oven as well as a hob. I do like my pizzas!
So I did something that, on the face of it, was really, really dumb. I hit the Buy it Now button. For £5000.
That was a hell of a gamble, but when I went to pick it up it was exactly as described. What’s more, as a minibus the vast majority of the body is fibreglass, meaning the rust that usually plagues older vans will only be a problem on the chassis and the bulkhead.
The seller was a genial guy, who picked me up from Scunthorpe station and drove me the eight miles to his place, which turned out to be an adjunct to a commercial vehicle yard. It turned out he had a business in selling and repairing trucks, but the camper was his own personal vehicle. So I could feel fairly reassured that it had been looked after, even though there wasn’t much of a service history.
Driving it the 100 miles back to Stretham was… interesting. After my experience with the Transit I had some anxiety, but it performed faultlessly, even (eventually) reaching speeds in excess of 70mph, which is pretty fast for this kind of thing. It doesn’t half rattle at that speed though (all those big windows), so 60 is a more comfortable cruising speed.
I got used to being overtaken pretty quickly, but it was nice to have that extra turn of speed if I needed it to overtake others. I also had to get used to the speedo being primarily in kmh, as the van has a tachograph. The mph is in a smaller inner ring of the gauge, and it didn’t take long to get used to looking at that, but the little light that illuminates every time you exceed 50mph is a little distracting…
The LDV and its ancestors
The only downside, really, was the brakes, which are pretty rubbish by modern standards. I had to remember that in essence, the LDV Convoy is little more than an updated version of the old Leyland Sherpa from the 70s, which itself was little more than an updated Morris J4 from the 60s. No wonder it drives like something prehistoric. Fortunately I’ve driven plenty of old cars with ineffectual brakes, so I already use engine braking as much as possible, changing down through the gears to reduce speed at the same time as braking.
It turned out to have two big leisure batteries, a split charger to keep them topped up from the alternator while driving, and a hookup cable to charge from the mains at a campsite. The only power requirement I still have to fit is a roof-mounted solar panel, which seems to be about £100-£200 and very easy to fit. Then I can be truly off grid!
There’s also two big batteries under the bonnet (I’m not sure why two) for running the van itself, so hopefully there shouldn’t be any worry about it failing to start because of a flat battery.
Unfortunately, the previous owner who’d had it converted wasn’t much of a gadget man, so there’s no USB outlets to charge devices. In fact the only 12v DC outlet is the standard factory cigarette lighter in the cab. And while there’s fair few three pin mains outlets scattered in the interior, they’re mostly only connected to the campsite hookup point. There’s only one which is an output from the inverter, but I’ve connected a six way trailer plug to it so that’s not too much of a worry. A more powerful inverter would be nice (this one’s 100w), but not a priority as I intend to use portable battery powered devices as much as possible.
I was lucky enough to get a PPI refund just after buying the van, which gave me a handy bit of spending money to get the gadgets I needed to maintain my probably lavish lifestyle entertainment-wise.
The main TV is an Anker Nebula Mars 2 portable projector. I did some research on portable projectors, and this had by far the best specs.
- 720p native resolution – not full HD, but a sight better than the 240p to 480p of any other portable projector
- 8GB internal memory for taking movies offline
- Android 7.1 operating system, with app store
- Bluetooth, wifi and HDMI conectivity
- Two internal 10w JBL speakers
- Battery life of four hours
It wasn’t cheap, but it’s an awesome little gizmo that has the added bonus of being portable outside the van too. It’s about the same size as a small lantern, and has a handy leather carrying strap. If you’ve got a surface to project onto (a white bedsheet will do), you can have movie night anywhere!
Sound is provided by a Sony SRS XB41 bluetooth speaker, which, while not pocket-sized like my old Jambox, is plenty loud and has great bass capability. It has a claimed battery life of 24 hours, but digging a little deeper into the Sony specs reveals the qualifier that it goes down to four if being used at maximum volume. It’s a VERY loud speaker, so I doubt that’s liable to happen much. It also has a party style lightshow that flashes very bright multi-coloured LEDs all over the front of it when playing. I’ve turned that off.
I’ve transferred my entertainment archive (music, movies, TV shows, comics and books) to a Western Digital 4TB portable hard drive, and there’s still about half of the memory free. So no need to compromise on my collection even though I don’t have much room for physical media.
The idea is to tie all this together with a halfway decent brand new laptop, and connect it to the net with 4G broadband. For the former, I will soon be speccing up a laptop from online retailer PC Specialist – I’m thinking the Ultranote V, which should have a decent battery life. For the latter, I’m still shopping around the bewildering array of mobile data deals available. I’m trying to get a breakdown from my current home internet provider of how much data I use in a month as a guideline, but they haven’t been forthcoming as yet.
All this stuff can be recharged easily enough from the 230V power provided by the inverter, but I’d rather rely on the leisure batteries as little as possible. So I’ve bought a high capacity portable power bank, the Griffin 28600mah, from Argos of all places. It claims to have the power to recharge an iPhone ten times, so it should be a good starting point. I also have my original PNY 10400mah power bank, which has less capacity but the advantage of two USB outlets where the Griffin has only one. Between the two, that’s a lot of portable power, and they can be recharged at my desk at work when necessary.
There’s a Spinflo cooker with four hobs, a grill and an actual oven. The grill aperture is pretty small, and the grill pan tiny, so probably won’t get much use. But the hobs are fine, and the oven big enough for the frozen pizzas and oven chips that are likely to be what I mostly use it for.
The fridge is a Dometic/Electrolux RM4230 three way, meaning it can run on campsite mains hookup, vehicle 12v batteries, or onboard gas. The gas is the most likely option, as I’m not intending to spend much if any time on actual campsites, and running it off the vehicle batteries would drain them in pretty short order unless I’m actually driving it.
There’s also a sink with a draining board, and a bench above the fridge. Together with the hinged cover for the hobs, that’s a fair bit of workspace should I be inclined to actually try cooking something properly. The hot water tank is under the sink, and charges either by gas or from the alternator while driving – a handy option which means that you have a tankfull of hot water whenever you arrive anywhere, though you then have to use the gas if you want any more.
There’s a wet room, presumably from the same caravan that provided most of the fittings, with a shower and a Thetford cassette toilet. No light inside it, though, and the waterproofing material covers the external window, so I need to get a translucent shower curtain so I can shower with the door open.
A three seat sofa runs along the opposite side to the kitchen, with a detachable table in front to eat from or whatever you choose to use your tables for – it’s a great place to situate the projector. The edge of the fixed double bed to the rear also works as seating at one edge of the table, and is at about the right height. An added bonus is that the bed is right inside the rear doors, so on hot and sunny days you can open them and lie in bed in the sort of outdoors. Though probably not a good idea when you’re parked on a city street.
There’s a Propex gas heater located under the sofa, and a battery powered thermostat on the wall next to it. With the leisure batteries turned on and the thermostat running, it should be able to maintain a comfy internal temperature even in the depths of winter.
Oodles. It doesn’t actually look like much, but you can fit a surprising amount of stuff in those overhead lockers along each side. There’s a bit of space under the sink for crockery, because plates are too wide to fit anywhere else. Plus more storage lockers under the sofa, and a big space under the bed (accessible from the rear doors), where I can keep all my tools and potentially a small pushbike.
At some point I’d like to fix a telescopic wardrobe rail over the end of the bed, for hanging shirts, coats and jackets, and there’s also plenty of space above the bed to fit a clothing shelf for everything else. I’m going to have to reduce my extravagant wardrobe still, but not by as much as I thought!
So, after trying to run before I could walk with the defective Transit, I’m suddenly in a position to try vanlife for real, without needing to do much work at all! The next posts will be a daily diary of my first attempts at doing just that, while I still have the safety net of an actual rented house.