How life in a caravan set us free

Kerry and Ella on the Ayrshire Coastal Path

Courtesy of: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-32974131

Tim Meek and his family decided they had had enough of their “ordinary” life, so they sold their house and went to live in a caravan.

My family and I wake up in a touring caravan. After packing away the temporary bed – and converting the bedroom space into the dining room – we eat breakfast together and share faded memories of last night’s dreams and excitedly discuss the activities of the day ahead.

It’s the excitement that comes with being away from home, and living a bit differently.

But unlike most “normal” people, we do this every morning. It’s our norm. Today was just like any other day, really, because our caravan is currently our home. It has been this way ever since we set out from Nottingham last summer.

We’re not on holiday, as such, but we are currently having the time of our lives.

On paper, and when measured in terms of how much disposable income we have though, it appears that we aren’t very well off. Or successful.

My wife Kerry and I and our daughters Amy, 11, and Ella, nine, are not living in poverty or anything – caravans are very comfortable these days – but compared with a lot of other people we know and people we meet, we are not very prosperous.

Kerry and I don’t have well-paid jobs. In fact, at this moment in time, we don’t have jobs, as such. We are self-employed – or as we like to call it, self-empowered.

We don’t have a big house. We don’t actually even have a house – we currently live in a modest four-berth Elddis Xplore caravan affectionately named Ellie by the girls. So, applying the normal measures of success in the Western world to our current circumstances, it turns out that we certainly are not keeping up with the Joneses.

The Caravan Handover
Image caption Tim, Amy, Kerry and Ella

But we are not bitter, nor disappointed. And we are certainly not seeking sympathy. You see, our predicament is completely self-inflicted. We have brought it upon ourselves deliberately.

In fact, we currently enjoy a richness that we could never have imagined.

How come?

Well, we believe that the real measure of modern success is nothing to do with your bank balance or the size of your house, but instead, the amount of free time you have at your disposal. We think disposable time, as a resource to strive for and spend, counts for much more than disposable income.

You see, time is much more valuable than anything else, be it natural resources such as gold or diamonds, or a man-made commodity such as money. Time is the currency of life itself.

Time is also a great leveller that, unlike other commodities, brings a certain equality. Because regardless of who you are, time and tide stand still for no man, woman, or child.

No matter how pseudo-important someone is in terms of their career or place in society, no matter what their salary or how much wealth they have accumulated, everyone ultimately has only a limited amount of time to cash in at the Bank of Life, a finite budget to use. Or abuse, waste or fritter away. Or to spend wisely and with meaning and value, with which to make a difference or to do something amazing.

And to us, at this stage in our lives with two young children to raise through their formative years, what matters more than anything – more than working to buy a big house or fancy car – is spending time together as a family.

A few years ago we were a textbook 21st Century nuclear family. We had a pretty average three-bedroom house on a modern housing estate. The girls were happy in the local primary school around the corner from where we lived. We had jobs.

Kerry and I both taught in Nottingham. I worked in a school specialising in Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Kerry was a well-established year-six teacher at the same school that the girls attended. We had enough income to live comfortably, security of employment and a pretty reliable pension fund to pay into.

Of course, sadly, the trade-off for these comforts was that we also had the ongoing monotony of working too many hours, with not having enough sleep, and with not having enough time to spend with Amy and Ella doing the things that we know are so important for parents to do with their children: reading with them, playing with them, or just having enough uncluttered quality family time.

And to cap it all, I saw Kerry on what seemed like a daily basis being psychologically and emotionally crushed under a growing pile of marking, pupil target matrices and pointless Excel spreadsheets that were being filled in because the data might one day make an Ofsted inspector happy.

I saw one of the most naturally gifted and enthusiastic teachers become utterly disillusioned with the job that teaching has become, to the extent that it was making her unhappy and unhealthy.

The result was that we felt like we were living for the weekends when we would get a temporary respite – breathing space – and the opportunity to make up the losses of the week before and attempt to repay the work/life deficit with which we were burdened.

The weekends gave us an opportunity to invest a repayment of time back into family life, in preparation for next week’s withdrawal. We would head off together into local woods, climb hills, go on long walks and often sleep out under the stars in our bivvy bags. Midweek we would look to squeeze in an extra opportunity for a mini-adventure and take a stove, a pan and some healthy ingredients and find somewhere exciting to eat “out” as a family. And I mean eat out – in the outdoors.

Eating Tacos by the sea
Image caption Eating ‘out’ – the Meek family enjoy tacos by the sea

Reassuringly for us, this was how many of our friends and colleagues were also living. Living for the weekends, I mean. It was normal. It is normal.

You see, as a culture, it seems we are almost accepting of this way of life. It’s a way of life that often seems to prioritise work and money above time spent together as a family or with friends, despite knowing that, according to Benjamin Franklin, “lost time is never found again”.

Too often the hours spent working, or in meetings, or away on business, or not having time to read the bedtime story – again – are justified by the designer trophies and possessions we collect in an attempt to compensate for the “work-time overdrafts” we have run up. Or by convincing ourselves that this is how it has to be, and that there are no other options available.

In our hearts and souls, it didn’t feel right, well not for us anyway. We kept asking ourselves – was this really what life was all about? The answer: “Surely not – it can’t be!”

Maybe it’s a sign of getting older or it’s just what happens when you become a parent. I don’t know, but somewhere along the way it dawns on you that the commodity that is time seemingly becomes much more valuable with every day, month, year that ticks away.

Free, available and unaccounted-for “disposable” time seemingly becomes rarer and rarer and more elusive and therefore highly desirable. And all of the cliches about having children take on an unnerving realness. “They grow so quickly”, “before you know it they are gone”, “don’t blink or you’ll miss them”.

Kerry and I re-evaluated our priorities and began thinking about how we could claw back precious family time from the grasp of modern living – to address the time deficit in our work/life balance.

We knew there was no World Bank or Royal Minute to pump more time into the system – no quantitative easing nor hand-outs available. We knew that we would have to take our own measures.

We felt we couldn’t afford to wait until we were pensioners before getting our hands on more disposable time – that was not an attractive option. I mean that Amy and Ella would have grown up and have left the roost by then and our bodies and minds would be less able to do the things we wanted to do.

It made much more sense to us to have time to enjoy while Kerry and I were young(ish) and we were all together as a family. We needed something more immediate. So, we began looking at how we could achieve a new lifestyle, no matter how temporary, that afforded us a lump sum of uncluttered free time to enjoy.

Girls canoeing
Image caption Kerry and Ella Meek kayaking

Late one night during one of our post-work, pre-sleep, bleary-eyed chats we were thinking about how we could give our family life the seismic jolt we felt it needed to put a significant positive change in motion, when the solution became apparent. As the bedroom light went off, the light bulb switched on. And the solution was simple – literally simple. The answer was to lead a simpler, less complicated life; a life of having less but doing more.

It would lead to us becoming a bit like modern versions of Barbara and Tom from the 1970s series The Good Life, and perhaps coming across, like they did, as slightly unusual and different to others – definitely not the norm.

We called our solution The Go > Do Life. It was a solution that would liberate us by freeing valuable time to enable us to go to places and do more of what we enjoyed.

You see we love the outdoors and spending time walking, climbing, cycling, scootering, camping, exploring, discovering, learning – living. From a young age, Amy and Ella have been encouraged to enjoy and respect the outdoor world and, thankfully, this means they are now perfectly at ease with the idea of spending all day hiking or all night bivvy bagging under the night sky marvelling at the Milky Way or wishing upon shooting stars.

They get enjoyment from doing simple outdoor activities, things that are actually low in financial cost but rich in rewards and, importantly, they seem to be quite content growing up with a close connection to nature.

And it is worth mentioning that this is against a global backdrop of evidence that suggests that the current generation of children – Amy and Ella’s generation – are growing up spending more and more time plugged into games consoles or social media, and less time playing outside.

Sadly, many children are becoming nature-deficient – apparently disconnected from nature, not valuing nature, not enjoying the natural world and sadly missing out on the associated benefits that spending time in the outdoors brings.

As a consequence, there has never been a more appropriate time to tell our kids: “You really need to get out more!” And, as parents, it is our duty to actively encourage (or at times even coerce) our children to do so – for their own wellbeing.

So, wanting to reap the rewards of time-rich opulence, in the summer of 2014 Kerry and I carried out a life changing plan. We quit our jobs, sold our house and took our children out of school to travel around the UK for a year looking for rich educational experiences and exciting opportunities for family adventure. We nicknamed it our Year of Ed-Venture.

A year free from the shackles of modern living; free to roam wherever we chose, at our own pace, able to enjoy every moment. No longer living for the weekends and wishing life away. Happier, less stressed and healthier.

Nine months in, and while we still don’t know if we are doing the right thing, it certainly feels right in lots of ways. We are very happy, active and healthy – and we are very appreciative of the time we are having together.

Of course, it doesn’t fit with the societal norm and not everybody could nor should do what we are doing, but sometimes you just have to go with your gut instinct, do what feels right – or at least give it a try – even if it means challenging the status quo and potentially sticking your neck out.

In some ways and on some days our journey is full of uncertainty and risk – particularly in financial terms. We don’t know what the future will bring us – but then no-one does really. You see, there are no guarantees in life, except for one thing – that one day time will eventually run out.

And, I believe it’s at this time in our lives, when we breathe no more, that our success or failure will ultimately be judged; not in terms of what we have acquired in life, but how wisely we have spent the most valuable resource we have at our disposal – time.

This is an edited transcript of Tim Meek’s Four Thought.

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