In an area populated by trimmed beards, themed bars and overpriced coffee shops, you probably wouldn't bat an eyelid at the rusting, white Mercedes Vito parked up on an east London side street. But slide open the door of this particular vehicle and you'll find an office, bedroom, kitchen and even an emergency bathroom, all squeezed into a space the size of a double bed.
Unlike camper vans, the white van is inconspicuous: "They are part of the city, no one will notice you if you live in one of those vans." Writes Manolo Remiddo in a blog offering tips for "city stealth camping". Intrigued we contacted Remiddi and two other 'vanlifers' to find out more.
Inside, the van's hygrometer (a nifty tool for measuring air temperature and humidity) reads 36.5 degrees, to the left of the number is a sad emoji face. Remiddi sits on his bed, his paper-white skin glowing under the tiny roof vent while I survey his home, which thankfully doesn't take long. Beads of sweat are already starting to roll like pinballs down the back of my legs. Cooking pans and lanterns carrying burnt out candles are strung up above the bed. There's a bursting eight drawer storage unit at one end and a worktop that doubles up as a toilet lid next to a drawer filled with antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer.
There are no windows and anyone much taller than 5ft would get serious neck ache. It's a far cry from the wide-open doors, fairy light-framed sunset views and tanned bikini bodies in impossible yoga poses you'll find under the #vanlife Instagram tag. The New Yorker lauded this lifestyle the 'bohemian social media movement' propelled by millennials living rent-free lives in exchange for product placement and sponsored posts. Remiddi, however, isn't doing this for the Insta likes.
"That's not really my style. I tried doing a blog but then it becomes a job, where you're always thinking about how to create content, a community, followers and advertisements – all this stuff you need to make a living. That's when you end up making videos you aren't interested in, writing about what you don't want to write about and taking photos of what you don't care about, so it becomes a fake way of living." He says.
While it's not illegal to sleep in your van, the council or police have the right to move you along under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. "Before getting the van I went through a period of moving a lot and a month sleeping on my friend's sofa so when I got the van it felt like a step up – to have my own space and a comfortable bed." He says. "In warmer countries, you can do your cooking outside but in London, it's not like this. You have to be stealthy if you want the freedom to park wherever you want. Most people don't realise how tough it is."
Originally from Rome, Remiddi moved to London in 2004 and worked as a sound engineer until the credit crunch hit in 2008. So he took a year off to study photography at the London College of Communication. "At that point, I was living in a converted shop near Old Street," he says. "I was living alone, in a large space with high ceilings – it was amazing". But a lack of money, the sudden death of his dog, a breakup in Croatia and a desire to live off-grid eventually led him, in 2015, to a campsite on the outskirts of north London, with just a second-hand van, some space-age insulation and a life's worth of belongings for company.
He had two day's insurance left, one of those he spent fitting insulation and a roof vent so he could stay in the campsite legally. Then there was the long wait for his UK driving licence to arrive, when he secretly made the van's interior livable (it's against campsite rules to make alterations on site). He describes this period with the excitement of a child cocooned in a sofa-cushion den. "It was beautiful, all this silver insulation... this was my little spaceship, my vessel". On the campsite, he had use of the shower/toilet facilities and electricity, so it was an easy start — all things considered. Unfortunately, campsites aren't a permanent housing solution — after a four-month stint you get kicked out for 40 days before you can return.
Eventually, his driving licence arrived and life on the road began. "On the first night, I went to stay in front my friend's house. It was kind of scary you know, to sleep on the street." But with Londoners shelling out £1,246 on average a month on rent, it's no wonder we hear about the odd hippy-at-heart giving up bricks and mortar for a metal house on wheels.
He says he's not prone to envy and happily lives on meagre means, spending £70 on insurance, £15 on road tax and £21 on gym membership (for the showers). He estimates the minimum he can live on is £450 a month (about four or five days' work). When he's not taking photos or doing sound engineering for nightclubs he spends his time studying, tracking Bitcoin currencies and working on creative projects. We speak about how creative people can't afford to live in the city anymore: "Some choices definitely make you a failure from society's point of view. If you want to keep learning, creating, experiencing, our society doesn't value those enough."
"Finding out that most of England's territory is considered private and not available for overnight parking (especially public parks) was a bit disappointing and stressful," says João Camilo, a freelance travel photographer who spent seven months living in a converted minibus aka Jackie with fiancée Rita Silva. When they weren't at Silva's Tottenham office (where she runs AvanHeart Cosmetics, an eco-friendly makeup company) she and Camilo would stick to the outskirts, pulling up near Epping Forest or Lee Valley Golf Course.
The couple decided to take the four wheeled-plunge after they found out the old day centre they were living in as guardians was being sold and demolished. Although it sounded like a natural choice for the pair who, despite having a bed, preferred to sleep on the floor. They used a foldable seat from eBay with disposable bags as a toilet, one butane gas cooker for meals, Silva's office address for post and anything else requiring you to fill out a form. The money they saved on rent they spent on travelling and living the organic, vegan lifestyle they'd always wanted to.
Camilo says during this time his perceptions of Londoners changed: "We met some of the kindest people in London," like the 65-year-old lady who helped them push the van when the battery died in front of an impatient bus driver and invited them for dinner afterwards. And Roy, who owns a launderette on Tottenham High Road who would tell them stories of his life while helping them wash their clothes.
If home is where you park it then it helps to find a quiet, free, shaded area with low pollution. Remiddi uses appyparking to find free parking spaces. Apparently, there are still some places in London which offer free parking 24 hours a day or at weekends. Then there's the congestion charge and Low Emission Zone to consider.
For Remiddi, a successful van life comes down to mapping the city. "First, you have to map out where the good internet connection is — it's too expensive to use cafe Wi-Fi," he says, as we throw daggers at our £4.50 juices. Libraries are useful for free internet (though this isn't always appropriate when he's editing more risqué photos for his escort clients).
In summer he plans his day around the sun because the temperatures inside the van become unbearable. "Even today in the shadows it's hot. And in this weather, you can't cook anything, it gets too hot too fast. So I eat a lot of salads... the supermarket is my fridge." Luckily he too is vegan.
In two years he's only ever had one parking ticket and one attempted break-in, (the guy left as soon as he realised the door was locked.) Then there's the issue of curbside parking which leaves the van at an angle. The solution? A customised bed so no matter how lopsided the van, he'll get a decent night's sleep on a flat surface. "Sometimes you forget to strap stuff down. Another thing you forget is where you've parked. But I'm always super careful to take photos of the road or do a Google Maps screen grab — you don't want to lose your house."
Essentially, Remiddi has re-scaled his comfort levels. "In a practical sense everything is more laborious... but it's also a mental challenge. Every day you are reminded of the importance of water, shower, toilet, fridge, everything we have, and lots of people on this planet don't. If you're a person willing to learn and change, then it's a good experience, if you fight it then it won't be."
Similarly, Camilo and Silva both reduced their water and energy consumption, using two 100w solar panels for electricity. "We downsized our belongings to the basic necessities and gave everything else away (or sold the things that had value). We learned how much we actually needed to survive, and that showed us our own consumption habits.
"Vanlife is a simple way of figuring out yourself in this world. Do I really need the best TV set? Or am I craving nature, and relying on a screen to show me what is out there?"
We gained more respect for nature than ever before, and started cleaning up the places we stayed overnight by grabbing a bin bag and walking for five or 10 minutes in the mornings to leave everything better than when we found it." Currently, the couple are back in Portugal, hoping to buy a new van and begin their next adventure, Speak your heart, a project documenting the lives of women refugees.
As for Remiddi, the blog by which we first contacted him has been removed and follow up questions were met with silence. Having perfected the art of stealth camping, he's slipped back into the fabric of the city and the cocoon of his four-wheeled spaceship.