My caravan home: ‘Why choose between country or city when we can live in both?’
She’s writing a book, he’s a locum doctor: when Laura Gray and her husband realised they could work anywhere, they downsized into a mobile home
Ask my friends to name a belonging that defines me and they would probably reply that it’s my clothes rail. Industrial-strength, double-height, stretching the length of the room, filled with choice pieces I have picked up over the years. As an ex-costume and textiles curator, it’s my collection. To my psychiatrist husband Ashim, the rail is a symbol of a woman treading a line somewhere between addiction and hoarding. Scores of seasoned removal men have commented on the sheer volume. I don’t have one grandfather clock, I have four.
Three years ago, planning the ultimate solution to the hanging space problem in our Manchester terrace, we decided to build our own house. We bought a piece of land in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, and waited patiently for the planning permission to come. Then we patiently waited for the appeal to be processed. Two years later, we began to rethink our plans. Listing the places we liked, there was no common thread. We wanted to live simultaneously in the countryside, in a city, on an island, at the seaside.
One day in early 2016, Ashim spotted a contract as a locum psychiatrist in a hospital in Bermuda. We let out our house, arrived in April, and for six months I drank a lot of rum swizzle, and Ashim had one of the world’s most beautiful commutes. It got us thinking: there is a shortage of senior psychiatrists everywhere, and locum jobs pop up in the most interesting places. I’m turning my PhD (on the influence of sculpture on contemporary British ceramics – a guaranteed conversation-stopper) into a book, so can work anywhere. We could live a rich life, in lots of different places. And we decided to do it in a caravan.
We found an Airstream dealership, but the vans were so massive we would need a new car and an upgraded driving licence to tow them, and so expensive we could have bought a house for the same price. I wanted that classic Airstream shape and all its open road associations, but without the bulk; after some hunting I tracked down a company in the Midlands that makes one-off aluminium vans to sell lattes and street food. As it doesn’t make “tourers”, I had lots of freedom to design the interiors, a freedom the company probably regretted as strange deliveries of fixtures and fittings began to arrive at its workshop.
I had some specific ideas. I didn’t want to have to turn the dining table into a bed every evening. Instead, we have a fixed bed, with storage underneath it. It lifts up using gas struts, and the mattress is shaped so it fits the curved end of the van. We have a micro-bathroom – just a loo and a tiny sink – and kitchen, featuring lightweight ply for the cupboards and an Ikea worktop with a nice birch ply edge. The Anglepoise wall lights were given red wires to take low-voltage caravan park bulbs. Instead of built-in seating, I got hold of a couple of canvas and bamboo folding chairs, then promptly burned a hole in the seat of one of them the first time we had a barbecue. But the real triumph is how beautiful the aluminium inner skin looks, with its riveting and armadillo-shaped ends.
We decided to celebrate the best of what caravan living can be, a small space – 102 sq ft – where every cup and pair of socks is actively chosen because it gives the most pleasure. So we have a Welsh wool blanket; a few pieces from a friend’s store, theshopfloorproject.com; a Bluetooth speaker from Bang & Olufsen. Apart from one cookbook – Nathan Outlaw’s Everyday Seafood – and the most recent edition of The Gentlewoman, we have fully converted to Kindle.
Towards the end of 2016, Ashim was offered a locum post at a hospital in Cork, Ireland. So in February this year we packed up and drove to Blarney Caravan and Camping Park, just north of Cork city. Even after six months living from a suitcase, I had some serious paring down of my clothes to do. I now have a capsule wardrobe of hard-working pieces: one dress, one pair of jeans, one pair of trousers and one pair of black Church’s brogues, which I wear with everything. I did buy one extra thing as soon as we arrived – a huge Aran sweater. Ashim has two suits, a few ties and five shirts, and it feels like a minor miracle each time he goes out to work looking smart.
The caravan park is filled with motorhomes, caravans and tents, which come and go. We’ve had some cold nights, but our electric heater and wool insulation, which encases the van, do their best to keep us warm. We have a two-ring hob but daren’t use both rings at the same time in case we trip the electrics. We have a 40-litre plastic drum that we fill to supply the taps, and shower at a nearby gym. Sometimes I wish I could roast a leg of lamb, or invite people for dinner, but then realise I’d have to ask them to bring their own chairs and to sit outside. Our wifi is patchy, but the sound of woodpigeons and the sight of rabbits on the grass outside our door more than make up for that.
I miss my clothes, but I love having just what’s needed and no more. We leave Cork in August, and after a trip in the van to France and Spain, we are planning to head to New Zealand for the winter. We will have to abandon our van on Ashim’s sister’s drive, but we’re not done with tiny homes. We are learning to sail and are hoping to live on a boat for our next posting. After our 17ft van, we won’t know what to do with the space.