‘Van Lifers’ gave up their homes for life on the road like in Nomadland

Nomadland, the Oscar-winning triumph of 2020, shone a light on the highs and lows on living off the grid but on the move. Now “van life” has become the UK’s biggest staycation trend, with hundreds of Facebook groups devoted to self-builds. But for some people, the trend is more than a quirky post-lockdown holiday – it’s a way of life.

New book VanLifers shows how people have created incredible campers on a budget, transforming fire trucks, horseboxes and even ambulances. Here, we meet a few van life converts. Have you given everything up for a life on the road?

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Mark and Sophie’s journey together began at the end of 2018 (Mark Bonito and Sophie Way)

It took two months for Mark Bonito and Sophie Why to transform an old ambulance destined for the scrap heap. The couple were already living in a campervan part-time when they bought the Fiat Ducato at auction with all of its life-saving kit still inside. The couple, from Surrey, spent GBP7,000 turning the ambulance into their new home – and called it Florence, after hero nurse Florence Nightingale.

Sophie, 36, who works as a radiographer, says: “When it arrived, the inside was a treasure trove.

'Van Lifers' gave up their homes for life on the road like in NomadlandFlorence the converted ambulance

Everything was still in place – the stretcher, fold-away seats… even the cupboards with labels indicating what had previously lived in each one. “My personal favourites were the cupboards labelled ‘vomit bowl’ and ‘body bag’. “We are regularly asked whether the van is haunted or told how disgusting it is because of the nature of what happens in the back of an ambulance.

“But we prefer to see the positive side of it and remind people of the number of individuals our ambulance has helped to save, racing along, lights flashing, sirens blaring.”

'Van Lifers' gave up their homes for life on the road like in NomadlandTasha Bee’s converted van Daphne

Artist Tasha Bee, 31, converted her van into a mobile pottery studio, allowing her to put on workshops across the country. The van, called Daphne, is the third to be renovated by creative Tasha but her first fully converted vehicle. Tasha says: “I had quite a clear aesthetic vision for this project and have loved the process of bringing it into reality.

I’ve learned a lot along the way. There are still quite a few bits and pieces that I want to do as well, so it’s an ongoing project.” Tasha, who is based in Bristol, set up a Crowdfunder campaign to raise funds for her portable business, called Pot Heads Pottery.

Her target was GBP3,000 and she raised slightly more than that, allowing her to install an electrical system in the van, which comes complete with an 1970s-inspired theme. “I think the most unique thing about Daphne is her colourful paint job,” Tasha says. “I sometimes forget when I’m driving around in her and wonder why people are looking at me with a funny smile on their faces – then I remember that I’m in a big flowery van!”

'Van Lifers' gave up their homes for life on the road like in NomadlandCharlie Glover’s converted Parcelforce truck

Former lorry driver Charlie Glover was living in his nan’s spare room when he bought his “faded and rusty” truck for GBP2,200 back in 2018.

The 31-year-old gradually kitted out the vehicle by skip-diving, upcycling and getting hand-me-downs from friends. Its sound system is salvaged from a nightclub, fresh water is stored in beer kegs and the kitchen is made from pallets. Charlie, of Cheltenham, Glos, who now runs his own van conversion company called RanVanga, says: “At the start, it definitely wasn’t comfortable.

It was cold and had no heating, toilet or shower, but I loved the process. “Some nights were awful, but when the sun shines and you remember you’re making your own home, it makes it all worthwhile.”

'Van Lifers' gave up their homes for life on the road like in NomadlandRAF veteran Sophie Cook

RAF veteran Dr Sophie Cook, 54, traded her two-bed flat for a 30-year-old horsebox after struggling to pay her rent during lockdown. After years of dreaming about life on the road, she snapped up her 1989 Ford Cargo Horsebox for GBP2,500.

And Sophie, who was known as Steve until 2015, affectionately named her horsebox Betty Blue. Since moving in, Sophie has mucked out the van to create a cosy mobile home and replaced bench seating with a sofa bed in the lounge area. Sophie, the former club photographer at AFC Bournemouth, says: “I love to roam.

One day soon I hope to cross the sea and travel.”

'Van Lifers' gave up their homes for life on the road like in NomadlandThe converted horsebox Betty Blue

Jess and Dave Branton always wanted to convert their own vehicle, so when they saw an advert for a fire truck nearby, it was impossible to resist. The van was delivered to their drive the very next day and the couple spent GBP6,000 converting it into their dream mobile home, complete with shower room, composting loo, gas cylinder, log burner and solar-powered system. Jess, 30, and Dave, 38, then took the plunge and put their house on the market in order to live in the fire truck full-time with their daughters Poppy, 10, and five-year-old Luna.

At first, the family stayed close to friends and family in Lincoln, but they have since clocked up more than 4,000 miles travelling through Europe.

Jess says: “At first we quietly resided in woodland and enjoyed true off-grid van life, homeschooling and rewilding with nature.

“The future for the fire truck family is exciting – lots more travelling and living freely.”

  • VanLifers: Beautiful Conversions for Life on the Road, edited by Alex Waite, is published by The History Press, RRP GBP20.

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