Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Not So Grand Designs [December 15]

There are so many things I loathe about the cult TV show ‘Grand Designs’ I can’t begin to count them. Mostly it’s the ‘grand’ part; the size of the domestic spaces being created. We westerners take up too much space. We demand airy rooms, vaulting ceilings, walk-in robes and bathrooms the size of bedsits. We are swimming in cubic metres.

When I invested in a small campervan last year it was partly in reaction to this space-gobbling trend. Even if I could afford a beach house it would have felt grotesque for one person to gobble up so much living space for herself. Yet I need to be beside the seaside, often, for my mental health. By the sea there are vaulting skies and airy breezes and I can swim in countless cubic metres of ocean. I blame my grandmother. She provided our family with beach house holidays all through my childhood and adolescence. I followed her into the surf before I could spell my own name and the shocking pleasure of it has never left me. So last year the campervan was purchased and the coastal journeys began.

Some pleasures are obvious: the freedom of hitting the road and heading wherever I like. The dawns and sunsets accompanied by the rhythmic crashing of waves. The hazy horizon stretching further than my ageing eyes can see. Above all, though, there is the pleasure of being physically contained within a tiny space. The van is the length of a station wagon, the living space not much bigger than a double bed. In that space I feel cocooned and contented. I lie back on faded cushions, reading novels, sipping on coffee freshly brewed on my one burner stove. I take photos with my aging smart phone, re-charge it from the van’s battery and send pictures of sunsets to friends in town. Their envy comes back to me in the form of emoticons.

There is also pleasure to be found in using limited resources with great efficiency. Perhaps this, too, is a family inheritance; I come from a line of generous but frugal folk. The van itself is a marvel of economic design, dreamt up by my stepfather in the wakeful hours endured by octogenarians after midnight. It wasn’t the first campervan he’d designed. He has criss-crossed the dry centre of Australia in his own house-on-wheels many times. We constructed mine together in his back shed; the master and his apprentice. Under the wooden bed base he created ingenious storage compartments (for books, mostly) and a sliding draw hand-crafted from found timber. It stores things like bird books and binoculars, insect netting and fly spray, sunscreen and thongs.

Down the back of the van in the ‘kitchen’ there is a water container, the single-burner stove and some drawers recycled from an old wardrobe. The insect netting is made from table runners found in a Barwon Heads op shop and the cutlery comes from a picnic basket scored at a swap night; objects costing next to nothing but offering daily utility. A recent Greenpeace poster entitled ‘The Buyerarchy of Needs’ perfectly sums up the makings of my little van: use what you have, then borrow, then swap, then thrift, then make – and only buy if you must.

Small pleasures begin to feel like grand discoveries. The shady tree perfectly placed to keep the Esky cool on a warm afternoon. The camp-park dotted with eucalypts, dotted in turn with dozing koalas. Jetties with pelicans perched like avian sentinels atop whitewashed poles. Tiny beaches hiding around rocky corners with just one set of footprints leading across the dry sand – but whose?

At night I lie in the back of the van (my home cinema) watching DVDs on a small laptop. I go to sleep still salty from the surf and wake up with stiff, mad hair. I am like a child in a cubby house, hiding from adult demands. In a small space you need never experience options paralysis (where shall I sit? which bathroom shall I use?) because your options are reduced to a minimum. Believe me, the relief is immense.

You can keep your grand designs, your elaborate homebuilding projects, your extravagant domestic spaces. Give me four wheels, a mattress, a wetsuit and a good body wave, and I’m happier than a tycoon in a jacuzzi.

At a family Xmas dinner this month everyone around the table was asked to nominate the highlight of their year. Amidst the wedding anniversaries and the births of grandchildren my nomination drew puzzled looks from everyone but my stepfather. ‘It’s simple,’ I told them. ‘It’s the van. It’s leaving home but taking home with me. You should try it some time.’


(This article was published by Fairfax in January 2016)

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