Woman in Cornwall on the highs and lows of van life
Two years ago, Charlotte Bradman packed all her belongings into her caravan and drove to what she describes as “one of the most beautiful places in the country” – Cornwall. She once had a mortgage on a house in the small town of Keighley in West Yorkshire, where she lived for 14 years.
But she explained that it was “voluntarily” repossessed a number of years ago, as it was in negative equity. After losing her home, her dog, and her long-term relationship in a short period of time, she forced herself to reevaluate what she wanted from life.
Charlotte explained that she chose to move to Cornwall as she had holidayed in the area since her 20s and had spent a number of summer seasons in Newquay. It is also the ideal place for her to connect with nature and pursue her passion of sea swimming as a qualified mindfulness therapist.
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“It helped with my anxiety and I wanted to help others,” she said. “When you’re in the sea, you don’t have the ability to have other things in your mind, you just focus on where you are at that moment.”
Charlotte, who is parked in her van along the beautiful Falmouth seafront, said the best thing about the van life is the stress-free lifestyle that comes with it. “It’s so much less stressful than being in a regular house,” she explained. “It opened so many doors for me and you have nothing to worry about, you can connect with other people and other opportunities. You are not limited to just one location either.
“My financial obligations are reduced and I am not as affected by the cost of living because the only things I have to pay for are van tax, vehicle insurance and fuel. It gave me a sense of freedom and I have more mind for things that really matter.”
Pictured in Falmouth where she is parked, Charlotte Bradman has been living in her van for the past two years (Image: Greg Martin / Cornwall Live)
Her van, which she converted largely on her own, has only the most basic amenities; one stove, a small sink, a single bed, some overhead storage and a small built-in cabinet that her friend had made. She admitted that the biggest physical adjustment to van life was not running water, but said it was easy enough to access public facilities.
“There are always taps of clean running water on the beach, in harbours, and this one is perhaps a bit macabre – at cemeteries,” explained Charlotte. “I am also asked where I go to the toilet, but there are always public toilets and cafe facilities that I can use.
“I also have a portaloo that I use occasionally and I will always empty it in public toilets. I don’t use any chemicals – just baking soda and lemon juice. People often complain about van-lifers emptying their bins in the woods, but I’ve never done that.”
“I’m a member of a gym, so I shower there most days,” she continued. “But in the summer, when I’m adventuring, I’ll be in the ocean, or a river, or a mountain pool, depending on where I am. There’s always recreation centers for showers, too. Or a sink in the back the van.”
Charlotte said she enjoys embracing a more simplistic and eco-friendly way of life. She explained that living in a van helped her think about what was really important in her life and allowed her to invest more in herself.
Charlotte Bradman embraces a more sustainable way of life (Image: Greg Martin / Cornwall Live)
“It’s all about consuming less, living with less and making more informed choices about what I buy”, she said. “When you live in a van, you have less space, but you realize that you can live comfortably with less than you think in a conventional house.
“I choose to shop at charity shops but I don’t really buy anything new and if I do it will be items that I like from really conscious brands. I can’t afford an electric van, so I have to use fossil fuels, but I try to be conscious of my way of life.
“We are taught that material items are a reflection of success and value, but this is all an illusion. All you need to be successful is to be happy. You have to own the moments in life, not things.”
While there are many positives to the van life for Charlotte, she said the biggest challenge she and others who live a similar lifestyle face is the hostility towards them from residents in the area. Earlier this year, Cornwall Council took a decision to ban overnight parking along seafront roads in Falmouth.
It followed a consultation period which began after concerns were raised that people felt ‘uncomfortable’ walking there. While concerns were raised among objectors about the potential for displacement parking and the impact on ‘van residents’, Cornwall councilor Laurie Magowan said at the time he believed the benefits of introducing the restrictions would outweigh the negatives.
Charlotte Bradman pictured in Falmouth, where overnight parking along the beach has been banned (Image: Greg Martin / Cornwall Live)
Charlotte said the council’s decision did not solve the problems local residents have with van occupants, but instead displaced them as they would instead find other ways to park in other areas of town. She added that this also increases the vulnerability of van residents, specifically solo women like her who are pushed to the outskirts of villages.
“People are afraid of differences and the only way to overcome that is for them to be aware,” Charlotte said. “What the council should have done is to host a community event to introduce van-lifers to the rest of the community and break down barriers. People need to remember that we are people.
“The council was under pressure from people, but it didn’t actually solve the issue, it just displaced the problem and increased the vulnerabilities of lifers. People living in vans will just find other roads to park on in more residential areas and this will end up creating more tension. As a solo female van-lifer, being pushed to the outskirts of places also puts me at risk.”
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“I had a relationship and it didn’t work out for me. More people will be forced to live in vans because of the cost of living crisis and because they are priced out of second homes and Airbnbs in Cornwall, so it is not financially viable for many people on the minimum wage to afford housing,” she added . “There must be more affordable housing. I work full time at Seasalt and my money is spent in an ethically conscious way with independent local businesses.
“What many people who complain about van hitchhikers also don’t realize is that they can go into a coffee shop and be served by people who live in vans. We fill essential vacancies, but instead of being welcomed, we are ostracized and booed.”
Next spring, Charlotte will release a new book, called the Happy Nomad, about her alternative way of life and the experiences that led to this moment in her life. “It’s all about my journey to freedom—overcoming adversity, processing trauma, and creating a reality outside of outdated societal models,” she explained. “The process of editing it was terrifying, but it was cathartic to write about the negative and traumatic experiences that led me here.”