The on-going challenges of living a freedom lifestyle

October 2020 (from Issue 33 of House Sitting Magazine

I’m sure you’ve had a more challenging year than you ever imagined lay ahead as you celebrated New Years’ Eve 2019, and the calendar changed to 2020.

  • What changed for you this year?
  • What challenges have you faced?
  • What difficult choices have you had to make?

As we’ve mentioned before, our plans for the early part of 2020 changed significantly, and instead of heading for the USA and then the Caribbean, we rented a small cottage in the south west of the UK. We lived there for almost four months while the country went through various stages of lockdown.

Over the summer, as freedom to travel began to open up, we managed to make a tentative return to house sitting, successfully completing half a dozen sits over a period of three months, still based in the UK.

Those sits were often subject to changes and alterations, and four sits had to be cancelled as home owners were unable to follow through with plans they had made.

We saw that flexibility and adaptability was going to be key to moving forward into this newly chaotic house sitting environment, and decided to bring forward one of our plans that we’d been considering for a while.

We bought a big white van, and began the process of converting it into a campervan.

Our thinking was that as there are fewer sits being listed in general, and competition for those listed can be quite stiff, we are going to have less opportunity to pick those which really appeal, and fit our timeline exactly. This means our schedule is likely to have many more gaps, and a van we could live in between sits would be the ideal solution.

We could enjoy small travel adventures, all in the relative safety of our own home on wheels. An additional benefit would be that we could offer home owners the option of a socially distanced hand over the day before the sits begins, and sleep overnight in the van, moving into the house as the owners departed.

So in early July we made our purchase, a 2016 Peugeot Boxer van. They come in 4 different lengths, and 3 different heights, and we bought the biggest model available, an L4H3. A couple of our main criteria for the build were

  1. a full size bed which didn’t have to be dismantled and assembled every day
  2. room to carry 2 bicycles hidden inside the van, not on a rack on the back
  3. a “stealthy” appearance, so we could overnight pretty-much anywhere
  4. off-grid potential, so we didn’t need to pay to be in a campsite each night

We were fortunate that the homes we were looking after over the 3 months of summer were all spacious enough to fit the van, as well as offer the opportunity to work on the conversion with the homeowner’s permission.

While Vanessa did most of the pet care, house work, magazine and Facebook upkeep, cooking, cleaning and providing endless cups of tea, I spent an almost solid three months working on the van.

I loved the challenges of the creative process, figuring out how to make the various systems - solar power, batteries, wiring, lighting, heating and a water system - work together. I also had to figure out how to fit everything into a very limited space.

As I worked through those months a word kept surfacing in my mind which captured what it was I felt we were working towards together – resilience. Our goal was to build more resilience into our life, so whatever challenges the future might hold, we’d be in a stronger position to be able to adapt and cope.

I worked with a strong sense of urgency, knowing that perhaps autumn and the onset of winter held the potential for a second wave of the virus, and the possibility for a lot of plan changes and new challenges.

At one point over the summer we found that our schedule looking ahead was completely empty for the whole month of October, and thought that might be a great opportunity to give the van its initial test run.

Where could we go? Perhaps a trip around the Highlands of Scotland on the iconic NC500 route? So we added this to the calendar, hoping to return south for house sits booked for November and December.

As the end of September approached I worked frantically to complete the last few tasks on the van. At this point I hadn’t yet filled the water tanks to test for leaks, and we didn’t have a gas tank, so the cooking and heating systems were still untested.

At the same time as I worked on the van Vanessa was keeping an eye on Covid development in the UK, as it was starting to look like more lockdowns might be coming, particularly in Scotland, which has tougher rules generally than England.

As the end of our final house sit drew close our plans were still vague, and a last minute discussion led to a dramatic change of plans. We’d make a quick dash north to visit family (all with appropriate social distancing, of course) before potential restrictions came into place there. Then, instead of heading further north, we’d return south, and cross the English Channel to France.

It was beginning to look like our November and December house sits may be forced to cancel their trips, so we chose an option that would make it easy to return if these sits did happen, but also offer the potential to head to a warmer climate for winter should all of our assignments fall through.

So we headed south! The ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe took about 4 hours, and was only about 20% full. Once through customs we made our way to our first planned overnight stop – a free campsite for motorhomes on a clifftop above a small town to the west of Dieppe.

Since that first night at the beginning of October we’ve stayed in lots of different towns, usually in an area provided by the local council, set aside for motorhomes. Most are free, some have a small fee, particularly those by the coast, or near heavily trafficked tourist destinations.

We’ve explored the historic Normandy coast where the D-Day landings took place in 1944, and are now heading further west into Brittany, all the time travelling safely, wearing masks and adhering to local regulations. We don’t eat or drink outside the van and are keeping ourselves to ourselves in our small home bubble.

Over the three weeks we have been here all our UK sits have confirmed their need to cancel their own travel plans, so it looks like we made a great decision to make our way across the channel.

We’ve actually managed to secure three short sits here in France for early November, and hope they will go ahead as planned. Although as I write this it looks like France is considering further restrictions on movement, which again may impact our home owners’ plans.

There is also the possibility that these travel restrictions may impact our freedom to roam too. We’re keeping a close eye on developments, and looking at alternate routes, locations and possibilities. The offer of a second home to use as a base in Burgundy will provide a winter destination while we wait to see how things pan out across Europe.

As I said, going forward into this new, ever-changing travel landscape is going to require a great degree of resilience.

We hope you’re plans aren’t being too badly impacted right now, and we hope you’re managing to find ways to cope with the challenges you face.

Best wishes,

Ian and Vanessa

(currently heading west across Brittany, France)

  • October 15, 2020

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