Hashtag Vanlife part 3

A couple of years ago I wrote two pieces on what was to me back then a fairly new movement of people. Called Vanlife and calling themselves Vanlifers, this new group of people in their homes on wheels were all over the internet with their blogs and their channels and their shops.

The first article titled Hashtag Vanlife, from September 2017 can be read in full HERE and the second, from January 2018 can be found HERE

Before I start this piece I’m going to repeat myself at bit from my other Vanlife post, sorry! I always feel the need to remind readers that what you read here are just my views and opinions mixed with some facts that I have discovered after taking to people or online research. I am more than happy to engage in discussion on the topic with anyone whether their views are different from mine or not. I am absolutely not going to engage with anyone who personally attacks me.

And also let it be clear that I believe as human beings we are all equal and are all entitled to live our lives as we sit fit as long as it doesn't impact on other people. I believe in being real, being honest, trying to make the world a better place for us all to live in. I believe in freedom to put your voice out there and encourage active discussion. I have absolutely no problem with anyone wanting to live in a van!

For ease of reading this piece I am labelling people into groups. The 'Vanlifers' are the new breed of van dwellers that have emerged over the last few years, many have been inspired by YouTube channels and Instagram accounts promoting living in a van as a way to travel. The ‘Sunseekers’ are the retired people in mostly factory built campervans who head south from northern Europe for the winter months, there has been a massive increase in these people over the last few years. The 'New Travellers' are what the media termed New Age Travellers in the 1990s who have in fact been around since the 1960s, I generally prefer New Travellers as a label rather than New Age! The ‘Irish Travellers’ and ‘Roma People’ are groups whose ethnicity go back hundreds of years and have a rich history, sometimes I will refer to them collectively as ‘Gypsy Travellers’.

None of us are keen on labels but it is just so as I don't have to go into a long explanation every time I mention travellers or people living in vans. There is a difference between these groups but there is also similarities and an overlap of the people in these groups. There are also a lot of people not in these groups and also a lot of people that get labelled into these groups that do not want a label. Please do understand readers that these descriptions are merely for the writing of this piece and I do understand it is a generalisation and can also help perpetuate stereotypes by doing this.

Friends meeting up at a festival.

If you have followed my blog or website you may well know a little of my history but for new readers I’m going to give some background on my life. I guess as a sort of reason why I’m writing about these things and as a kind of proof as to why I feel I can offer a well thought out opinion based on my own experiences and first hand stories from friends as well as people I know online as well as New Traveller and Vanlife groups online.

I have been part of the New Traveller scene since the early 1990s, for a long time I was on the fringes occasionally visiting a site or going to a free party where there were other New Travellers. I had a few friends living on the road at this time which I used to see now and then. I had the chance to move onto the road in about 1997, my son was 5 and had only just started school. I made the choice to stay in a house and for him to have a settled childhood. By this time there had been lots of evictions of sites and the free festival movement stopped, many New Travellers had moved to Ireland, Spain, France and Portugal where living in a van was still more relaxed. So despite the romantic idea of a glorious life on the road I knew the reality may well be very different and didn’t feel prepared for that with a young child. 

I started working at festivals in 2003 and enjoyed the growing number of grass-roots festivals that were starting to emerge. Free festivals were a thing of the past by then but it seemed there was still a way to put on a reasonably priced event that attracted some New Travellers due to partly the anarcho punk bands that were a part of the scene, a way of connecting with people and a way to make a little bit of money if you had a skill or stall, were a musician or were part of a festival crew.

After a couple of years in a tent I soon had a van that I used to borrow from work to take to festivals. I used to drive it home the night before and spend a few hours hanging up throws and making it as homely as possible. After a couple of years of that I bought my own van that I converted into a campervan.

Many festivals, weekends away and even weeks away later I decided that with my son now away at university it was time to hit the road full-time, the year was 2010. At first I spent nearly 4 years travelling Spain and Portugal, I found many New Travellers living in vehicles, I found some sites with New Travellers from all over Europe coming and going and I found some free festivals happening with lots of New Travellers taking part.

A bar at a popular Travellers festival.

I then spent 3 years mostly in the UK, living on a few different illegal sites and living roadside. I went to many of the grass-roots festivals still going strong and found that there were definitely some festivals that attracted New Travellers more than others. Now I spend more time in Portugal than anywhere else but still come back to the UK most years. I have many friends in the New Traveller scene in the UK as well as on the continent.

So to the actual point of this post, I’ve already written 1000 words without actually getting to the point! What is the point of this post? To examine the new Vanlife scene now a few years on? To look at the differences and similarities between the Vanlifers, New Travellers, and Gypsy Travellers? To try and bring all van dwelling people together? To look at the good and bad in the scene? Well maybe some of that and probably a bit more.

In my last two posts I mostly talked about Vanlife, some positive and some negative and it was definitely more negative than positive. Can I turn that around now over 2 years on after meeting more Vanlifers in real life? I’m afraid to say I don’t think I can, not because of the people I have met in real life. Most of them have been nice enough but as I think I said before in my last post on this subject I generally find the ones not doing a Vanlife blog or YouTube Vanlife channel or Vanlife Instagram are the ones I have got on best with. The ones out there thinking about their channel or their blog all the time can be insufferable and the online community of Vanlifers come across as consumers and worse still some come across as having quite right wing prejudiced views.

I think that once you have to start thinking about content for whatever online thing it is you are hoping to make money from then you are on a slippery slope to getting biased to where you go and who you get friendly with. If you have an agenda where you want your ‘content’ to be a certain way then you can fall into the trap of actively ignoring things that come your way that could be interesting. What I have now seen more recently is people actually making things up or vastly exaggerating the truth of a situation to make their content look better than it is or just to appeal to a certain group.

Many Sunseekers leave northern Europe for the winter and head south. Vanlifers and New Travellers often do the same.

People keep sending me links to Vanlife videos on YouTube, for some reason they think I’m interested. Obviously none of my New Traveller friends do this! What has struck me is firstly in most of them the presenting is awful, just because you can afford to buy a fancy camera and laptop and you can learn how to edit videos, it does not make you a good presenter! Why do these people think they can do this? I guess the modern online culture of putting your life out there, whether it be a picture of the bread you just made or the haircut you just got, has encouraged many people to go that step further. I must admit I find even the top Vanlife YouTubers tedious in the extreme but then I am not interested in the content so that puts me off anyway.

Maybe if you are interested in the content then the videos are more watchable. Maybe people like the non-presenter, someone who is just like a friend, someone not professional. I can relate to that, one of the channels I watch has a guy who is good without being a polished presenter.

Many Vanlifers advertise their blogs and channels on their vans.

The not so popular channels are downright awful in my opinion. People are scrapping the bottom of the barrel for content. Terrible shows on cooking meals that look unsavoury, using bizarre ingredients and presenting it badly. I’ve never given a video on YouTube a thumbs down before, but I had to recently as the presenting and content was so terrible! Not that I watch a lot of Vanlife films, I must admit usually I watch a few minutes and then turn off!

Of course it is all a matter of opinion and I think that a lot of the followers on these Vanlife channels and pages are people who aspire to that lifestyle. They are sitting at home within four walls, working 9-5 and hoping that one day they can pack it all in for a life of freedom on the road. The other group of followers are people that have their own channels and pages doing the same thing and so are looking at how well the competition are doing or looking to get ideas for other content for their own channels. Of course there are also the other Vanlifers that are genuinely interested in what other Vanlifers are up to but I think they are the minority.

The Vanlife movement was born online and seems to have glamorised living in a van. The reality of van living is sometimes glossed over and there seems nothing physical bringing people together for a common goal. That’s not to say people do not meet up on their travels and make friends but there seems no sense of a ‘real’ community. It seems that the lifestyle has been turned into a consumer market, people trying to sell ideas of the lifestyle, people trying to sell products to make the lifestyle easier and influencers getting paid to promote a one sided version of van life. Whilst there is an understanding of van living being a simpler lifestyle, it also seems to be a product of grotesque consumerism.

The New Traveller movement started from people with similar beliefs getting together to live a different way. It grew very quickly from the 1970s through to the early 1990s and there were people with differing opinions and beliefs but there was an undeniable underlying sense of community. A community of people who wanted to live in a different way, who didn’t want to be governed or told what to do but who wanted to live a peaceful existence. The New Traveller movement had regular gatherings, firstly festivals and fayres and then also parties and raves. It had more structure and purpose and in many ways by being a New Traveller you were making a political statement.

A New Traveller festival.

This to me seems at the core of the difference between New Travellers and the Vanlifers, there is no real sense of community, a shared objective that goes any deeper than wanting to live in a van to travel or to want to document their travels. There is nothing wrong with that and like I’ve said I think it is the content searching Bloggers, YouTubers and Instagrammers that are the foolish ones when they become too obsessed with content especially when it is for money making purposes rather than for the love of it.

In my opinion the very thing that spawned the Vanlife movement is the very thing that has stopped it becoming a proper community, the internet. When people were travelling pre internet you stopped and spoke to everyone! There was no way of knowing where the best park ups where, where you might find other travellers, where there was a party going on unless you stopped and spoke to other travellers. They were simpler times, if you were in a converted van, bus or truck you were a New Traveller, if you were in a plastic fantastic, (the New Traveller term for a factory built motorhome) you weren’t! Those in plastic fantastics back then were usually Sunseekers, although now many Vanlifers have these rather than building their own van.

When I hit Spain and Portugal in 2010 the internet was already around, I had been using the internet at home for ten years by then. Like most people I had an email address and I because I enjoyed writing I had a blog and had even gone so far as to make my own website. I like most others did not have the internet on my phone at that time. As far as I know there were no websites listing park-ups then either. I went to local libraries every few weeks to check my email and that was my only online interaction I had most of the time.

A word of mouth parking spot I used in Spain. 

My first month living in my van in Spain was spent driving down the east coast, I didn’t see another New Traveller! An older Traveller I met in the UK had given me a list of places to check out and it wasn’t until I arrived in Nerja on the south coast did I bump into another New Traveller. A German in an old Mercedes with graffiti all over it. He remains a friend to this day. This led to more swapping of places to go and park ups and when I went to those places I met more New Travellers and found out about more park ups and places to go and so it went on. Sometimes I would randomly meet other travellers in supermarket car parks, in laybys or in towns. These meetings also led to a swapping of places to go and places to park and sometimes to friendships.

Now with the popular park4night app no-one needs to do this. I’m not saying people never stop to chat and swap places to go, of course they do but something has been lost, that real connection with someone who is living like you, someone who you need to trade information with. That need has now gone and so people can pick and choose much more who they interact with as all the information they need is at their fingertips. They can look out of their van window and decide they don’t want to talk because of how you look rather than actually taking the time to talk to you first before making a judgement.

A parking spot that has got busier since park4night.

I’m not saying having the internet at our fingertips is a totally negative thing, gone are the days are driving round for ages trying to find a half decent spot to park up! Gone are the days of getting absolutely hopelessly lost. Gone are the days of not having a clue what that light on the dash means that’s just come on! Although actually some of my best times have been the result of getting lost or breaking down somewhere and even when they haven’t been the best of times they have done something to strengthen my character, something some Vanlifers, (and yes, also some New Travellers) definitely lack!

I’m not trying to paint any rosy picture of New Travellers, like all walks of life there are good and bad, there are the nice people and the cunts. Just because there is a shared sense of community among travellers doesn’t mean there are not negative issues or people that are not those who live by the original peace loving ethos of those first hitting the road. Not all New Travellers embraced the rave scene when it arrived in the late 1980s and some hated the sudden influx of party people that were not the same peaceful hippy types. There was still a sense of anti-establishment in both camps which did help keep the groups from totally splitting.

There is without doubt a kind of class system among some New Travellers. Those with the biggest trucks looking down on those in vans or those who have lived on the road for decades looking down on those who have only just moved onto the road or even worse those who don’t live on the road but come to the gatherings on weekends in their vans. Does this come from the British class system? I don’t know but there is an element of a class system with some New Travellers and I have seen this even with some non-British New Travellers.

There is some discrimination against house dwellers, an attitude of I’m better than them because I’ve chosen this way of life. There is a division between other travelling people and this goes all ways with all types of travellers. Gypsies against Travellers, Travellers against Vanlifers, Vanlifers against Sunseekers and visa versa. I’ve always been aware of this but a recent Facebook post really highlighted it.

Vanlifers, Sunseekers and New Travellers parked up together in Spain.

The post was sharing a news item from the BBC as they had done a piece about Gypsy Travellers living roadside during the Coronavirus. The people they interviewed were mostly Vanlifers. There was one woman who was possibly more New Traveller and a voice over at the end from an Irish Traveller. The first comments on the Facebook post were from Irish Travellers and Roma people saying that it was only New Age Travellers on the interview and it wasn’t a true representation. Then there were comments from New Travellers saying that it was all Vanlifers on the interview and that wasn’t a true representation! The interviewer pointed out that there was no Gypsy Travellers that wanted to appear on television due to Gypsy Travellers mostly being portrayed in a negative light by the media.

Of course there is an inherent difference between discrimination that one feels when it’s not from a choice they made, when it is literally just because they are born a certain way. Irish travellers and Roma people have suffered huge prejudice over many years. They have been subject to abuse and retaliation, they have been marginalised by society, they have had to put up with intolerance from other members of society, they have more trouble getting jobs and their children are regularly bullied in schools. I think it is really important to acknowledge this among the New Traveller community and the Vanlifers.

New Travellers are certainly discriminated against but in a different way, they are more likely to be harassed and victimised because of a choice they made rather than anything they were born into. The media have labelled New Travellers in a negative way as they have with Gypsy Travellers and have created a stereotype that the public now believe. Now that there are 3rd generation New Travellers on the road they had no choice over the lifestyle they were born into and so the prejudices they face feel to them something that they have no control over.

I have felt discrimination against me for being female as well as for being a traveller but I feel the discrimination I suffered for being a woman has felt far worse than any discrimination I’ve faced for being a traveller. When I have felt prejudice against me for being a Traveller it has felt more like the person giving it is just an idiot who has believed the stupid media stereotype or someone jealous that they can’t just lead a freer life.

Some van and truck dwellers parked up by the coast.

I’ve noticed that a lot of Vanlifers seem to think they are the first people to live in vans or on the road. They never talk of the New Travellers or the Gypsy Travellers that have come before them. At a guess I’m thinking they do not want to be associated in any way with Gypsies or Travellers, possibly due to the negative stereotypes associated with both. This is sad as there is much to learn about travelling and living in vehicles from those that have already done it and have been doing it for years.

Recently I saw some comments on a post on a Vanlife Facebook group which confirmed to me that many Vanlifers do not want to be associated with any other type of vehicle or caravan dwelling travellers. Being evicted puts you and your vehicle on the radar as a ‘traveller’ said one comment while another was, we are not travellers we are people that live in vans that travel. Of course not all vanlifers feel like this and some have a foot in both camps so to speak.

A parking spot that used to be all New Travellers is now on park4night and has many other visitors.

I have also seen a Vanlifer facing eviction during the Covid-19 crisis playing the ‘poor me’ card and moaning that the council only give help to the ethnic travellers, I guess meaning Irish Travellers and Roma People. I’m sure different councils have different policies so I wouldn’t want to comment on the individual case but I do know that New Travellers have had help from their local traveller liaison officers and that Vanlifers in Bristol have been helped by the council there during the pandemic. I’m pretty sure that help is out there for anyone faced with eviction during a global pandemic you just have to know where to look!

Another thing I saw which made me give an ironic chuckle was one of the Vanlifers that has a YouTube channel and Instagram page encouraging people to get together after the crisis and form convoys and organise parties. Hum I thought, I’m pretty sure this is what New Travellers were doing until it was made illegal along with their lifestyle under the criminal justice act!

Travellers and friends meeting up over a fire.

Some van dwellers may identify as a Vanlifer and a New Traveller, (or neither), as if they are interchangeable, and actually why shouldn’t they be? Some people living part or full time in vans have taken some of the traditional New Traveller ideas like having a wood burner in their van for instance. Some have taken on some of the ‘look’ from traveller culture like wearing their hair in dreadlocks. This seems more positive and much more a nod to those who have trodden the path before. Not that I’m saying everyone should do that but it shows to me that many new van dwellers know that there have been van dwellers before them.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown to me that as a whole many of the vanlife people were unprepared for the closing of campsites, public toilets, shops and carparks. They had been relying on an infrastructure that got suddenly taken away as well as trying to cope with an increase in hostility towards people living in vans. There has been many people living in vans asked to move on from where they were parked and some people harassed, bullied and threatened. The internet has shown to me that there are a massive amount of vanlifers asking where to park, where to get water, where to dispose of waste and how to handle evictions. On the other hand there has been hardly any Travellers asking these questions.

A park up near an airport where lots of van dwellers wait for friends arriving.

New Travellers have faced all this before, not in the same way, not in the middle of a global pandemic but all these issues have been raised time and time again within New Traveller communities. Travellers may use facilities when open but most are ingenious in ways to get water, knowing places to park up where there will be limited hassle and where to get rid of waste. Waste is another difference, or should I say human waste. Everyone has to empty their bin but that is pretty easy in most places as there are plenty of bins. Human waste is a different matter, traditionally Travellers did not have toilets in their vehicles. In the countryside you would go and dig a hole and do the business, in towns there would always be a toilet you could use. A lot of Vanlifers seem to have toilets but have been stuck as to where to empty their toilets since campsites shut. This is not a criticism just an observation of the different difficulties Vanlifers have faced compared to Travellers.

Another parking spot shared by New Travellers, Vanlifers and Sunseekers.

Perhaps more importantly is that Travellers are used to being harassed for their choice of lifestyle, it happened before the Covid-19 crisis so no change there. For a lot of Vanlifers this is possibly the first time they have encountered bad feeling towards them living in a van. Many Travellers have also experienced eviction or the threat of eviction before and if they haven’t they will likely know someone who has. From what I have seen online many more Vanlifers feel ‘stuck’ during the pandemic either because they now cannot travel to where they planned or because they are somewhere they did not expect to be for so long, some in other countries. I haven’t really seen so much evidence of Travellers feeling ‘stuck’.

A sunny parking spot in Portugal.

What is really important to remember is that there are many more Vanlifers online talking about their situations than there are Travellers. New Travellers just like Irish and Roma Travellers are more wary of putting things online and discussing their lifestyle, where they might be parking and how they are getting on. So what I see online is absolutely not the whole picture and I do understand that I’m seeing much more about Vanlifers than I am about New Travellers. This certainly is making me see more of Vanlifers problems, moans and prejudices so it does make this article is in no way impartial! Not that it is meant to be, it is just my humble opinion!

In summing up and as an end to this piece, and an end to this trilogy of articles I think that the Vanlife movement has the potential to encourage people to live a simpler life with less belongings and less impact on the earth. At the moment though it doesn’t seem to be bringing much in those terms when just looking at the online view of things. In reality the actual people living it and especially those not consumed with a channel or blog are living this way but it seems to be stopping short of a collective getting together in real life with all sorts of van dwellers, travellers and nomads to fight to keep our way of life legal and to keep stopping places open. This requires all those living a nomadic way, as well those who choose to live in a van or other more temporary structures on their own land, to come together to campaign for our rights.