Converting our van – the hard part

The last few weeks have been a bit of whirlwind and things I’ve wanted to blog about I haven’t got round to doing. And then I realised that I haven’t written at all about our van and we have carried out so much work to it!

We bought the van in April and in just two short months it has gone from this…

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To this!

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Ignore the tape – the adhesive was drying!

From the beginning we have always wanted to do the work ourselves, and desperately wanted to avoid using standard VW conversion flat-packs. The one important thing for us was to optimise the use of space; I’m 5’10” and Sam is 6’3” and we didn’t want to feel over-sized as if we were sitting on/using children’s furniture! Pinterest has been a vital tool in our van conversion box. It is honestly amazing the amount of ideas you can get from that lil social platform, whether its space-saving tricks or different layout designs, it has it all. Plus a load of dreamy pictures of people on the road (us one day!)

I thought it might be helpful for those of you thinking of/in the process of converting a van if I broke down each step we have taken to get the van to the condition it is currently in.

Ripping it out

For those of you who have bought a van with an empty rear – great! For those of us that didn’t, there’s a two-day job in getting the back stripped out. For us, we had to remove the ply sideboards and floor, get rid of old and really worn glues and adhesives and take out the metal bulkhead separating it from the front cab. Once you’ve got down to the exposed metal, its time for the deep-clean. A bit of washing up liquid or car cleaner mixed with water works well on the inside, but be careful of any wires, plus the break-lights at the rear. FYI, even if your van doesn’t look like it needs a wash, it needs a wash.

Windows

Our van was a hard-grafter during its working life and had no windows in the back at all. When you are thinking about how you want to use the space, you really do need to take into account the amount of light. Some people only have windows in the sides at the back (whether that’s the front-section or all the way along the sides), but we have opted for windows in our barn doors too. Sam was a bit unsure about this as its not particularly common, but we are so glad we did it as it makes the space feel larger and like you are part of your surroundings when in the van.

Cutting the windows in is no mean feat, so if you are hopeless with anything technical then get a professional. I am terribly lucky in that Sam is an engineer and most at home with using power tools – one of the drawers in his garage is actually marked aggressive tools which basically means I should not go in there or I will hurt myself! We ordered the glass for the sides and back from CamperGlass, which is slightly tinted and offers some privacy. Because I am hopeless at explaining how he did it and with what, we filmed a video that you might find useful:

Insulation

Some people really go to town with their insulation, stuffing every tiny hole and using boards too. We took a ‘moderate’ approach and stuffed the walls and wheel arches, and then lined it with aluminium insulation roll and tape. We did the roof, and partially covered the floor too. This part can take quite long – its mainly sealing it all off with the tape that’s time consuming but stick with it.

Carpet

Once you’re insulated, its time to carpet! I will say from the beginning that this was a job neither of us looked forward to. The carpet is semi-stretchy and quite forgiving, but we had to watch several YouTube videos to understand how people were able to carpet an entire side of a van in one go. Once you’ve done one side though, it does make the rest easier. I do have a top tip: hold the carpet higher on the ceiling so you have equal amounts draping over the ceiling and the floor. As you start to glue it to the van, the massaging movements to get it into every nook and cranny can cause the carpet to start to fall, even though I was holding it as high as I could into the roof whilst Sam pushed it into the side of the van. You will need to use spray adhesive, and coat both the van and the carpet in it otherwise it will not stick that well.

We carpeted both sides of the van, the sliding door and the barn doors. So many people warned us against carpeting the doors, and especially up to the seal of the doors in case water leaks in, but we worked out a way round that. We have carpeted up to near-ish the seals, leaving a small 1cm gap. We made sure the cut in the carpet was straight and even so that it lines up nicely on the door. We have just bought a black strip seal, thinner than the one on the body of the van, which we will use to line the door. You can’t see the thin seal from the inside and it doesn’t prevent leaks either.

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We opted for a light cream/grey carpet as we want an airy feeling in the van. The most common (and maybe cheaper?) colour is dark charcoal grey but we didn’t fancy that. The marl white/grey is lovely, and its good quality.

Floor

Once the carpet was in we re-laid the ply floor (ours came with the van and was cut to fit). We then laid the flooring which we got from B&Q. It’s a wood-effect vinyl flooring but sticks down rather than being slotted together. Its so easy and also very durable and won’t move at all. I’m quite impressed with its quality as I am usually a stickler for using proper timber/untreated wood not laminate. So there you go!

Next steps

Now that the inside is as ready as it can be, we can start to build the bed and cabinets. Sam has just bought the wood from B&Q (costing £180) and will hopefully be hammering it all together in the next couple of weeks. We are going to be building the cabinets from cheaper ply, and then the work surfaces and doors will be made from old floor boards we already have to give it a sort of rustic look.

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The bed will go down the far side of the van opposite the sliding door. It will be a galley sofa essentially, and the bottom will slide out to form the double bed. We can then store the bedding underneath it during the day.

Best buys

It is so easy to spend a fortune when converting your van, but by doing most of the things ourselves we have saved so much money. Our friend has a van and has bought all the kits for it – he estimated he will have spent £11k plus the cost of purchasing the van by the time its done. Ours is on track to come in at £3k 🙂 Far more palatable!

Think about what is important to you and what you are like to use most, as well as how often you are likely to use the van. Its easy to spend £60 on a tap but ours is self-pumping (one push!) and that was £16. Instead of a £450 fridge we have an electric cool-box – same capacity for only £50 plus we can take it out for the day if we are going for a picnic. Savings can be made if you look into all of the options. I’ll post about these items and more once we have made some progress with the interior build.

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Around & about in Illinois

As promised, I thought I’d do a quick post about a few of the things you can do if you’re willing to venture outside of Chicago. Chicago is a beautiful city, but there’s so much you can do out in the countryside! So here’s a few things to do if you have access to a car and a few dollars (for the toll!)

Starved Rock State Park
Located approximately 2 hours south/west of Chicago, Starved Rock is an excellent place to go hiking.The area acquired its name after some native Indians were said to have been driven up the rock and starved to death. Not a pretty tale, but truly a pretty place. The Park has approximately 18 canyons from memory, some of which you view from above and some of which you can clamber up and along and see the waterfall in its mouth. There are also some incredible views from atop Starved Rock itself, as well as its sister outcrop, Lover’s Leap. There’s a circular route around the Park which takes around 2 hours to walk, though the more adventurous have plenty of opportunities to branch off or do longer walks along the river. The second best part? It’s completely free to enter!

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Indiana Dunes
As the name would suggest, Indiana Dunes is situated in Indiana, not Illinois. However, given Chicago is only c.30 minutes inside of the Illinois border from the south, Indiana Dunes is extremely accessible. It takes about 1 ½ hours to reach by car, but is a lovely escape away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The Dunes comprises of 3 very large sand dunes, forested areas, marsh land and a long stretch of sandy beach, making it an ideal all-day destination. You can hike up and over the Dunes, the largest of which stands at nearly 200 feet tall. We accidentally did the circular route backwards, but were glad in the end as it meant we didn’t have to climb an incredibly steep hill at the beginning! Bring trainers, but you will end up with more sand then feet in them! But then you can say you have done the 3 Dunes Challenge! Then you can take a wonder through the forest on the way back to a relaxing afternoon at the beach. Be warned though, it’s $14 dollars entry per car (or $7 if you are an Indiana resident).

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Lake Geneva
An hour ½ north west of Chicago, Lake Geneva is commonly referred to as Chicago’s playground. The lake itself is very large – it’s a 20 mile trip around its edge – and a beautiful place to come on a sumer’s day. You can enjoy various boat trips and tours as well as renting sail boats. There is a small beach to the south and a handful of shops and restaurants and overall it very much has that holiday feeling. You can walk around the entire lake on the Lake Trail, though this does go through the back garden of many (posh) houses fronting the lake, so don’t wander off the path onto private properties.

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Further afield
If you have a bit more time , you could venture further north to Milwaukee, and on to Green Bay. Take a picnic and enjoy the countryside!

Illinois is a lovely state, flat as far as the eye can see with large parts of it put to agricultural use outside of the city. It has a calm, more reserved vibe to it compared with Winsconsin which is a bit more rough and ready in my opinion (I like that though).

Hope this is useful if any of you happen to visit!

Chicago: what, how and when

I haven’t blogged as often as I have wanted to these last few weeks, mainly due to time pressures and worries at work (that literally made me cry, no joke). Thankfully, we had a break to Chicago planned and it frankly could not have come at a better time. Sam and I were both exhausted so a little time out was really needed.

My brother lives in Chicago so I guess you can say that we’re pretty good at getting around; hopping on and off the metro and using buses, etc, is second nature. We’ve taken in all the sights this trip, but for those of you who aren’t au fait with Chicago and are thinking of visiting (it’s well worth it), then read on for my simple guide on what to see and how to get there.

Downtown Chicago
Famous for its skyline, shopping and sprawling parks, downtown Chicago is really the place to be. The metro system has a circle of stops known as The Loop, though the distances are definitely walkable.

There are a number of key sights to take in downtown. The John Hancock Centre is the second tallest building in Chicago and worth a trip up to the 97th floor. It has stunning views across the whole of Chicago and, being near the lake, takes in Navy Pier and Lake Michigan too. It costs $19 per person plus tax. The Willis Tower is the tallest building in Chicago and it does have a glass floor (for those keen on a selfie or two), but it’s away from the lake and close to the river and doesn’t have such impressive views.

From the John Hancock Centre you can really take your pick of activities as the city is walkable, (though do stop by the Cheesecake Factory at the foot of the building because it is literally the best cheesecake I’ve ever had). My suggested route would be to walk east a few blocks to the lake, stop for a bite of lunch on Navy Pier and then do an afternoon river boat cruise. The cruise goes up the river and takes in Chicagos’s architectural buildings and is quite informative and enjoyable, though it does cost $39 each (plus tax!)

If you head a few blocks further south you’ll get to Millenium Park, home to The Bean. The Bean is a famous metal sculpture which reflects the skyline of Chicago and is a must-do for a every first-time visitor.

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Depending on what time of day you visit, I would recommend that you stroll through the rest of the gardens at Millenium Park and take in the visual fountains before heading across the road to the Athletic Association and up to Cindy’s bar. This bar is great late afternoon on a summer’s day – and you don’t have to be dressed up, don’t worry, it’s suitable for all forms of attire including walking shoes. Prices are not high and you’ll thank me when you enjoy a cocktail overlooking the park and the lake.

Further south
Heading a bit further downtown you’ll reach Grant Park which features the huge Buckingham Fountain. If you’re visiting in early May, like we did this year, they hold a cute fete in the early afternoon with a countdown to the turn on of the water. The fountain marks the beginning of the summer season in Chicago, when there are loads of music and food festivals to enjoy.

From Grant Park walk west a couple of blocks to the Washington Library. It is an impressively large red brick building with some lovely arty ceilings inside.

If you fancy venturing south even more, get on the green metro line and hop off after Roosevelt in order to visit the Clarke House. This is the oldest house in Chicago and survived the fire that ravaged most of the city. Tours are free and take place twice a day a couple of times a week, so check before you go in case it is closed.

Whether you are staying in the north or south, I would recommend that you take a walk along State Street and Michigan Avenue for a little shopping! State street is best for footwear – there are literally a dozen different shoe shops in only two blocks near the Lake metro stop. Michigan Avenue is home to the Magnificent Mile row of shops, some on the more expensive luxury side.

Near North
There is not as much to do in the north of the city, though the roads are wide and lined with pretty houses so worth a walk about. We get off at Fullerton metro stop on the red line and walk east several blocks to Lincoln Park and the conservatory. Both are free to enter and from the south of the park there is a wonderful view across to the skyscrapers of downtown. The zoo houses a polar bear, which I don’t much like as he is often agitated and is in far too small an enclosure really.

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Whilst in Chicago you MUST take in a baseball game, even if you don’t understand the rules (we literally had no idea what was going on or who was winning when we went). The Chicago Cubs are based at Wrigley Field, at the Addison metro station (red line), whilst the White Sox are based down in the far south. You can get cheap seats only a couple of days in advance so don’t worry about booking ahead.

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Heading further north from Addison takes you to Evanston. This is a lovely part of the city and where we stay when with my brother. The university is worth a walk around, especially to see the hand-painted rocks along the lake shore.

Getting around
Getting around Chicago is easiest by metro and by foot. The metro is a mix of over and underground trains by CTA. It costs $2.50 for one journey, and an extra 25c if you travel twice more (called ‘transfers’) in a 2-hour window. The blocks in Chicago aren’t ridiculously big like in other American cities, so it is definitely worth walking as much as you can to see everything. To give you an idea, we walked from Grant Park in the south of downtown to the John Hancock Centre in the north of downtown and got on the metro at Clarke/Division and that took only 2 hours including photo stops and and some leisurely shopping. Though do wear trainers as I didn’t half moan in my beat-up Vans!

If your feet hurt too much you could rent a bike – a Divvy bike. It’s blue and you’ll find docking stations all around the city. I haven’t used one, but I think they are $3 for 30 minutes or $9 dollars a day, but don’t quote me on that!

I hope this has helped some of you decide whether or not you want to visit Chicago and some possible routes across the city. If you want more specific tips or road markings, comment below and I’ll happily help you out.

We’re heading out of town the next few days so I’ll probably do another post shortly about things to do in the surrounding area. Though I will say one thing, Americans love a toll road!!

We’ve joined the #vanlife club!

So I’ve been a bit tied up for a few weeks and haven’t been able to post what I’d wanted to. Work has really got in the way; I don’t usually stress much but there was this one client where I worried so much I didn’t sleep for a fortnight.

Anyway, that’s mostly over now and work is back to ticking along as best it can. Alongside that we’ve been busy round the house (I will totally have to share my new dressing room that Sam built for me – everyone is envious!)

And then this happened 2 days ago:

WE ARE NOW THE PROUD OWNERS OF A VW T5 CAMPER VAN!

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We’ve been talking about converting a van to go travelling in for some time now, well over a year. But vans are so expensive never mind customising them so I honestly thought it was a pipe-dream.

Anyway, on Thursday evening Sam received a message from a friend with this van listing so he drove straight there to look at it. I was a bit sceptical simply because there is so much round the house we need the money for, but I trust Sam’s judgement; he’s an engineer and we have a classic mini so any work that needed doing to the van would have to be done by him.

I was on the train home at the time and only had one screen-shot message to look at, and the van admittedly did seem ok. A few minutes later Sam called me, which was when I knew it was serious:

Sam: I’m seeing the van.

Me: Yes, I got your message. What its like?

Sam: Well, good. I want to buy it.

Me: *rolls eyes* bear in mind we still have a lot of work to do round the house and its my 30th birthday in a few months and we need to save for having children (we found out they are waaaaaaay expensive apparently!)

Sam: Its in really good nick and runs fine. There’s a few bits that need sorting, but its good. And for the price we can’t go wrong [that part was damn true].

Me: [explains he will need to sell the mini long-term as we don’t have money for everything]. I’ll leave it up to you. Just bear in mind the work has to be affordable and do-able by you.

Me to mum: I bet he’s going to buy it. I bet we’ll have to traipse up north this evening to go collect it. He’d better sell that mini.

1 hour later. There is a van on our drive.

AND IT IS BRILLIANT! If not slightly more compact than I imagined, but that’s all part of the fun right?20180330_185622

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So… instead of doing things round the house, my pinterest has exploded with #vanlife pins and ideas and I’ve even drawn out a rough lay out, though that’s probably a tad premature right??

I was supposed to be planting my vegetables this weekend so that’s gone right out of the window.

Anyway, I will probably post a bit on here about how we are getting on converting it, and any recommendation will go a long way, so do let me know!

TTFN!

*so excited!*

Our Cornish (Coasteering) Adventure

Over the August bank holiday weekend Sam and I took a trip down to Cornwall, which is one of our favourite places in the UK. We’ve been many times before but absolutely love it down there and always take any excuse to go back. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

We stayed just outside of Padstow, in a small campsite in St Merryn. It was the perfect location; great transport links for Padstow and Port Issac, and on the way home we were able to stop in at Tintagel and Boscastle too.

Padstow is a beautiful Cornish village. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESIt is situated on north coast and has a wonderful little harbour. The shops are quite commercial; the typical surf and fudge shops I’ve come to expect from Cornwall, but I think its the restaurants and cafes that entice the visitors in. Pubs, gastro-pubs, up-market restaurants and nook-and-cranny cafes, all serving fresh delicious sea food. You can buy freshly-dressed crab and mussels from stands around the harbour – as well as the traditional Cornish pasty if you fancy something more meaty! Padstow is quaint, but you really don’t need more than a couple of hours there.SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES I would definitely recommend going in the morning if you can, as by lunch time and the afternoon the crowds are immense.

Harlyn Bay is where we did our coasteering. My parents had bought us a voucher for Christmas and we were so pleased as it meant tying in a new venture with a trip to the coast. I’ve wanted to do coasteering for a couple of years now (perhaps in an attempt to still feel young and fit despite my advance towards the big 3-0!) Sam is not a confident swimmer so I was a bit unsure whether or not he would enjoy it or would be too apprehensive – but he LOVED it. Coasteering is a meander across the rocks and seaweed along the coast, jumping into the sea and rock pools at designated spots. I would definitely recommend it for those of you who want to do it but have reservations. We filmed a little video to show you just how good it is – so you don’t have to take our word for it!

 

This was the hottest day of the summer – about 28 degrees. I thought we’d be bundling up in jumpers and blankets for the short drive back to the campsite but how wrong I was. I kicked back with some snacks back at the car and sunbathed!

Port Isaac in my view, is a cuter, lesser-known alternative to Padstow.SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThere is one car park at the top of town and from there you can do a short walk along the coast, round and down to the village. It has a wonderful little bay with fishing boats (very active fishing boats judging by the amount of fish we saw in the market). We stopped for a Cornish cream teaSAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES in a quirky little cafe where everything from the jam to the scones themselves were homemade.  A perfect respite before we continued on up the hill and enjoyed a welcome break overlooking the bay and soaking up the sunshine. Don’t forget to call in at the little fish market on your way through.

Some people may be familiar with Port Isaac as it is where Martin Clunes’ Doc Martin is filmed, but I’m pleased that, for the most part, it has not become too tourist-y.

Tintagel. Famous for the ruined castle and Arthurian legends of Merlin and the round-table. This village has really take on the myths surrounding the village as many (little) shops contained everything from dream-catchers to figurines. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Just to the left of a Cornish-pasty shop is the very steep walk down to the bay. But don’t worry – you don’t have to walk back up! There is a Landrover service for a small surcharge, or you could cheat like us and walk via a quaint church on the headland. We didn’t pay to go into the ruin or down to Merlin’s cave as it was sooo hot and there is not much shade, but we did enjoy it from afar and had a lovely walk back around on the coast.

Make sure to stop for a Cornish pasty in town – they’re well worth it! You only need a couple of hours here – perhaps a few if you are going to go across to the ruin.

But then you can take a short drive to Bossiney Bay. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESPark up in a car park just off the road out of Tintagel and take a short 5 minute hike half way down the cliff. You should come to a cross road (ahem, cross path), and if you continue for a few yards there should be a parting in the hedgerow, giving you a clear view of the bay below. The rock formation here is quite famous as it looks like an elephant with its trunk dipping in to the water. Its also quite a safe bay to paddle in when the tide is out.

Boscastle was our final stop on our little tour of north Cornwall. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Just a couple of miles up the road from Tintagel is this little village. There aren’t any shops per se, but several pubs and cafes and a thoroughly enjoyable walk alongside the river, leading out into the estuary. You can walk along the river wall right out until you view the sea; but walk on the right not the more publicised left-hand side as the views are more impressive.

The tide was out when we arrived and we were able to see the chains staking the boats to the seabed, seaweed snaking along it and over the rocks. Well worth a visit and again, only a couple of hours are needed.

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If you are planning a visit to Cornwall – enjoy! And if you want any recommendations of where to go or stay just comment below.