Vanlife, the first week. Day 1 – Saturday

A day by day account of my first week living full time in the van – I thought it was a good idea to try it and see if I could cope while I still had the safety fallback of my rented bungalow in Stretham.

My usual carsharing buddy was about to take two weeks holiday, and the parking space we use is at his work, so that meant having to catch the train from Ely to Cambridge and back at £4.90 each day, twice the cost of the usual drive. What better time for a first attempt at living in the van – I can park in Cambridge and walk to work. No traffic jams, no fuel costs. Lovely – hopefully…

Day 1: Saturday

It’s birthday drinks for my friend Phil, in the village of Milton, some nine miles from Stretham where I currently live. Nine miles may not sound like much, but the buses stop after 6:30 pm, and it’s a hell of a walk down a pitch black country road with no footpath, only illuminated by the passing cars screaming by at speeds well above the limit. Taxi? Yeah, if you’re prepared to spend £25 or so. Sounds like the ideal first trip for a van I can sleep in.

I spend the day prepping the van. What do I need for one night? Well, getting the fridge started would be handy, in case I want cold beer. I google the instructions for my fridge (Dometic / Electrolux RM4230, fact fans), and find the way to start it on gas. Turn off electric supplies, turn gas to maximum, hold the gas knob in and press the igniter switch. Then hold the knob in for a further ten seconds or so until the failsafe cuts out and it stays alight.

That takes longer than it should, and I make quite a racket repeatedly stabbing at the igniter, but eventually the pilot light is visible in the little spyglass at the back of the compartment, so that’s done. Later, I will discover that its performance as a fridge is variable at best, and ‘cold beer’ is a sadly unlikely prospect.

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I also make sure to fill the water tank, using the perhaps unhygienic means of a garden hose attached to the sink in the house’s kitchen. It’s a 40 litre tank, but fills up pretty quick; when I hear it overflowing onto the drive, I rush outside, pull out the hose, then rush back in to turn off the tap while it spews water over the drive. In hindsight, that order of actions might have been better in reverse…

I then discover the process of making the water actually run, by trial and error. Yes, there’s a water pump to bring it to the taps. No, it doesn’t ‘just work’ – you have to turn on the leisure batteries with the controller, at which point it makes an arthritic whine until the water is at tap level. Then, hey presto – running water! And at a rather higher pressure than I’m used to from the house too, should be great for the shower… more on that later.

Next up – entertainment! I make sure I have my newly purchased battery powered projector handy – an Anker Nebula Mars 2, battery life of four hours, native resolution 720p, internal storage 8GB. I’ll project onto the curtain across the cab, I think, perfect! No it isn’t, as I discover later. It’s a short throw projector, meaning that even a short distance away from the screen results in a MASSIVE picture. In this case, a picture so large it overspills the visible bit of the curtain to project along the various surfaces nearer to the projector at disconcerting angles. Clearly needs more thought.

Fortunately, the big battery powered Bluetooth speaker (Sony SRS-XB41) works brilliantly. Once I’ve figured out how to turn off the egregious disco lights that festoon its every line anyway (you press the BATT button under the cover on the back). Lovely Bluetooth connection to the projector. Which I’m not using, it turns out. Oh well, it connects to my iPhone, and that’s got 30,000-odd songs on it. Should be enough.

I don’t want to use any more of that 40 litres of water than absolutely necessary, so I make sure to shower and shave before leaving the house – and have an evening meal too, so I don’t need to cook that night. By the time all that is done, it’s too dark to figure out the other rather important aspect – prepping the chemical toilet for use with the relevant chemicals. Oh well, I’m going to spend the night in a pub car park. They have toilets. And hedges, when the pub’s shut…

The trip to Milton is the first time I’ve driven the van in the dark. It’s its usual affable self, swaying in the wind with its shedlike aerodynamics, and bouncing alarmingly over the uneven surface of the much-subsided A10 (those fen roads are strangers to flatness). Unable to see the still unfamiliar controls, I turn on the wipers instead of the indicators on several occasions.

While waiting for Phil to arrive at the White Horse, (I’m early, and he’s a stranger to turning up on time), I make sure to ask the landlady if it’s OK to sleep in her car park overnight. Fortunately she’s known me for years, and says it’s ok. I’d never do this without the landlord/landlady’s permission.

Phil’s friend Cameron turns up before Phil does, resplendent with his new Master-like goatee. Then Phil turns up, then his friends Gavin, Om and Lucy. After some catching up, we all head out to the van so they can have a look at the interior. Six people, including me. This’ll be a test of how much socialising I can do in it.

It’s a little cramped, but comfy. For me and Phil anyway, as we perch on the edge of the double bed. Cameron, Om and Lucy fit quite comfortably onto the three seat sofa along the side. That leaves poor old Gavin having to stand up or squat on the carpet. Even then, it doesn’t seem too crowded. We have a beer, listen to some music, then head back inside for more pints.

After the pub shuts, I head out to the car park for my very first night actually sleeping in the van. Fortunately, it’s a well-lit car park, as the cab has no interior light; I have to feel around to find the switches on the driver’s door that activate the lights in the rear.

Once inside, I get undressed and climb into bed. Comfy! I celebrate with a not-very-chilled Punk IPA from the ‘fridge’, turn on some soothing music, and go to sleep. There’s a couple of wakeful moments in the night, partly to do with the unfamiliar bed but mostly because I need a wee, which the nearby hedge helps with. Then I sink into a restful (I hope) sleep.

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