While I was still wondering how to find off-grid people, Fiona and I were invited to a wedding in a decrepit stately home in Somerset. Twenty-four of us were going to camp on the lawns and eat meals in the stone-flagged dining room. About half the party turned up in camper vans, and I realised that these friends who used to own nothing except a bicycle were growing up and having families; they’d found they could keep at least some of their freedom by bundling the kids into a camper. Someone had an upmarket vehicle called a Hymer, which was more like a bed-sit on wheels (later, I would discover that an above-average camper van can cost more than the average house). I was introduced to Strider, who had arrived in a converted LDV van which cost him in total about 250 plus parts. Strider lived most of the time in Wales, in the only valley which still had no electricity. He had renovated the tumbledown cottage himself, and lined it with second-hand books for insulation. His neighbours had a wind turbine on their land, but Strider had no time for that malarkey. Twenty-year payback period? he scoffed. I want to be in California long before then, smoking spliff and soaking up the rays.
A camper van was the answer. My choice would be both a sign that I had joined the off-grid army as well as a practical solution to the logistics of spending time with off-gridders. The statistics show that there are 150,000 camper vans in the UK, and even if half are mouldering on their owners front drives, the other half, 75,000 households, have the means to go off-grid tomorrow.
Leaving till later the task of persuading Fiona that this was a worthwhile use of our time, I began to question Strider about his set-up, and he told me what to look for in a camper. For a start, make sure you get one you can stand up in, otherwise you are gonna end up living like Golum under the bridge. That was pretty rich, I thought, coming from someone who looked and lived like a hobbit. But I knew he was right.
Next thing on Strider’s list was ventilation. If you have a completely sealed interior then at night your own breath ends up condensing on the windows and walls and running down onto your bed. You wake up damp and shivering. Even at the risk of being cold, ventilation is essential. One of those little wind-vanes in the roof is all you need.
Don’t bother with plumbing, he said. It might all seem very attractive in the camper-van showroom, when you realise you can flush a chain just like on a normal loo, and turn on the tap for water just like a normal kitchen. But you actually have to fill up those huge water tanks and, sorry to mention it, empty the toilet. You are better off with a few twelve-gallon plastic water tanks with little taps on them, and using the great outdoors as your toilet.
And the last crucial item, he advised me, is . . . curtains. Shut out the world when you want to, and enjoy your view of the countryside the rest of the time. I agreed with him there, having experienced in my early days in Majorca waking up in a hire car to find the local populace staring at me curiously.
By the time Fiona arrived on the scene I had, of course, established enough of a routine to render this car-sleeping unnecessary which is just as well because car-dwelling is not her style. I doubted that she would look on camper-van life any more favourably. Fiona is an artist with a studio in east London and a string of galleries in LA, New York and Berlin as well as the West End. I thought carefully about how to raise the idea with her.
Fi? I ventured as we lay in bed one rainy Wednesday morning. She had just told me for the nth time how the arrival of Caitlin had plunged us into an unprecedented and worrying routine from which we needed to break free. We have to try to do something different every day, she’d said. I sensed my moment had arrived. Fi, I cooed again, how about we just jump in a camper van and get away for a few months, go and check out the way people live, you know, away from the rat race?
Are you kidding? she said, reaching for the cup of tea I bring her every morning, which takes about ninety seconds to make using our energy-burning 5kW designer kettle from Habitat.
But we love it whenever we go to the country, I persevered. You’re always saying you want to spend more time out of town.
She shook her head. I belong here in London. We’d go bonkers after about five days.
She’s right, I thought (I am so easily led).
Well, can,t we try it out for a while, at least? I whined. We could go for quick trips, and see if they get longer.
Silence. This was a good sign.
We could use that Japanese Army camping cooker I bought you when we first met, she said, eventually.
I was home free! Saved by the stainless steel, highly complex Muji camping stove that had loomed over us from the top shelf for the past four years. By the end of the trip it had yet to deliver a meal the instructions were all in Japanese, and although we did run into a Japanese woman on a camp site, her English was not good enough but it had served its purpose. From now, whatever absurd adventures I had on the way were pre-authorised. I’d get no comeback if I was arrested for overnighting on Glyndebourne or wild walking through private shooting estates. I had the go-ahead to park the camper on Hampstead Heath. It was all part of an experiment Fiona had signed up to.
That discussion with Fiona was my turning point. We would go on the road for a week or two at a time to begin with, and then see whether we wanted to spend longer living this way. I also planned to travel alone when Fiona’s commitments kept her in town. I began to plan a schedule in this theoretical vehicle, forgetting that I had no idea how to acquire one. Perhaps a visit to Devon and Wales for starters, both hippy redoubts since the 1960s. Then there were the remoter parts of Yorkshire, and Scotland, not to mention the possibility of finding the occasional yurt in the Home Counties. I could, I realised, live an off-grid life as I did my research perhaps buy a wind turbine for the camper van, solar panels for the roof, and an array of mobile gadgets from the camping stores.
I did a double-take. Wasn’t off-grid at least partly about quitting the spendaholics consumption habit? Yet there is a mini-industry in gadgets and systems for off-grid life: rainwater collection units, pole-mounted wind turbines, foldaway solar battery chargers, meditation retreats in organic country homes . . . the list is endless. Did I have a moral dilemma here before I had even started? I decided I did not. If I invested wisely, the products would pay for themselves in reduced stress and consumption. That would be better for me and better for the planet. And it would be better for the businesses that adjust to this new reality. They would build longer-lasting, better-quality products, and give better value for money.