Van extraordinaire

life in a motor home
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The Independent Culture
Imagine spending every day and night with your partner and two children in a space 16ft by 7ft. Your three-year-old is ill and your 10- month-old baby is teething. One is writhing on the floor, both are screaming. You cannot prepare supper without first moving the dirty dishes off the cooker and onto the carpet, beside your screaming child. Bran flakes and milk are scattered in an arc. You cannot use the loo without being dripped on by the shower. You have recently been robbed. It is cold. It is raining.

This is not an experiment in sensory deprivation, one of those "How little space can human beings stand?" investigations that for some reason people willingly submit themselves to. No, we are doing this for pleasure. We have been at it for three months, and have another 15 to go.

It began when we agreed that, after nine years, south London had lost its charm. We were tired of dog-shit parks and car crime. We were tired of our house and our possessions, of dull jobs and duller au pairs. We wanted to escape. I envisaged myself lying beside some sunlit lake with my daughters romping round me and my husband Richard doing something manly (and probably bearded) nearby.

We spent weekends at Turner's of Dulwich, Britain's longest-established dealers in Motorcaravans. The result is that we have rented out our house, left our jobs, and now live in a home that is no longer something boringly fixed in one place, but a home with places to go, a Motor Home, one that we drive to a location of our choice, and park. A cross between a lorry and a caravan, it is built like an ox and able to heave itself over any mountain pass.

Before we filled it, the interior seemed spacious. As for the decor, this is delightfully kitsch, with co-ordinating dusky pink velour furnishings, and the piece de resistance, a cocktail cabinet with a plastic "leaded" window and a light that illumines automatically when you open the door. There is a mini shower, and a mini flushing loo called a "porta potti". To Tallulah (aged three) it is a giant Wendy house: we have a kitchinette, a dinette (where we eat), and every night we make up our bedette.

Equipping the vehicle was as much fun as buying it. Now I could indulge my passion for catalogue shopping. There is nothing more enjoyable than perusing the pages of Innovations magazine, chortling over the All-in- One Towelling Trouser Robe with Hood at pounds 29.99, or the shoes with spiked soles for aerating the lawn. There was no choice but to spend lots of money buying space-saving devices that themselves take up lots of space, like a bread bin that contracts as you eat your loaf. My best purchase was a portable CD storer incorporating intriguing selector dials and locking devices.

Richard customised the vehicle. He built a toy box in the luton above the driver's cab, and a safety net to stop the children falling out. The "double" bed was punitively narrow so we use boards to attach it to the single bed on the other side of the "corridor' (one foot wide), giving us a bed the width of the entire van.

We waited for winter to pass and for baby Xanthe to arrive. Tallulah was eager to take up residence, but it took time to abandon our lives, close bank accounts, find tenants for the house, and allow Xanthe to reach the age when she stopped waking us four times a night. When she was seven months old we set off for France; three months later, here we are in Finland.

It took a while to get used to the van: we had never made up the bed, let alone slept in it. We had never turned on the gas cooker, let alone cooked a meal. And we had never used the porta potti (Richard still hasn't - he prefers the forest floor). Everything, as it turns out, works fine.

Less good was Tallulah's response. Rain set in, and she fell ill. She was sick in front of the Bayeux Tapestry (fortunately, the other viewers were plugged into headphones so missed this additional sound effect). She refused to go to bed in her luton, despite the inducements of the toy box, and woke baby Xanthe. She missed her friends. She had unprecedented tantrums. When asked which she preferred of the glories we have seen - the Grande Canyon of Verdon? the Alps? Strasbourg cathedral? she replied: "Stockwell." She hasn't yet asked to go home, but there must have been times when she wanted to. There have certainly been times when we wanted to send her there.

To make matters worse, someone broke into the van and stole my beloved CD storer. It was then that I regretted not buying the spiked lawn-aerators, which could have been useful.

But, three months on, we have settled in, and Tallulah now loves her "top bunk", where she sleeps and plays. It is astonishing how much power a three-year-old can have over her parents: when Tallulah is happy, we are happy. Right now she is happy because we are parked beside a beautiful lake, and she is romping round me while Richard is doing something manly - and bearded - nearby

This is the first of four columns by Helena Drysdale

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