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Turning a library into a motorhome


Making the most of recycled elements

Transforming an old mobile library into a fully-featured motorhome and touring around the country with your young children might seem like an impulsive idea but for Jo Royle and James Wilson it made perfect sense. Jo and James had always loved travel – previously having spent a year travelling across Australia and south east Asia – but with children Annie, age eight, and Oscar, four, as well as full time jobs, that wanderlust had been on the back burner. Then, Jo was made redundant from her job as an IT programmer and the family spent the last couple of years cramped into a caravan anyway. Jo had taken up teaching meditation and with her 40th birthday passing, decided that touring the country, helping people with their wellbeing would be a great way to spend her 41st year.

Plywood floor going downThe couple duly bought a mobile library on eBay for £4000 in January 2014, spent February planning the layout and in early March got stuck into the conversion. It took longer than expected though, as they were still finishing things at midnight, the evening before the set off on a year-long adventure in September 2014.

James explained how it all started: “We started sketching out the interior as soon as we had committed to buying the library. One of the great things about it was the number of windows it had, these also governed where we could fit certain things like the bathroom and our bed. We wanted the kids’ beds to be separate from the living spaces so we didn’t disturb them once they had gone to bed in an evening. We positioned the shower room towards the front of the bus with a small corridor space at the side. This did a good job of creating the separate spaces. We wanted a fixed bed and also to use our existing king size mattress. Our final design was a bed frame on pulleys that lifted up into the ceiling space during the day and dropped down and sat on the backs of the seats and dining table at night.”

Now this kind of project would be daunting enough for an experienced motorhome convertor, but this was the first vehicle project the couple had ever attempted. However, they had renovated a number of properties over the years and lived for the past two and a half years in a static caravan, so had got used to living in a small space and had learnt what they needed to make it work for them all.

For the conversion their theme was the seaside and beach huts. As James is a professional upcycler he wanted to use as many reclaimed, repurposed and unusual materials as possible. They took the old library shelves apart and used them to panel one of the walls in a beach hut style. The kitchen cupboard doors were made from some old doors they found in the back of their garage that they didn’t even know were there. The kitchen worktop was made from old, school gym flooring complete with badminton court markings, and there were Spiderman comics all over the bathroom walls for their four-year old. The walls in the living area were lined with 70s road maps and all the light fittings were made from recycled parts such as washing machine drums, pallet wood and some of the old fittings they stripped out of the library earlier in the year.

The finished kitchenThe bus was over 14 years old when the couple bought it so obviously it was going to need some work. Unfortunately, all their time went into the interior so they were unable to do any mechanical servicing before they set off. Jo explained what happened, “It had been looked after by Suffolk council, up until 2011, then it was run privately as a mobile computer shop and as such needed to have a regular VOSA check as it’s a 7.5t vehicle. It passed its MOT in July needing only a new windscreen washer pump! As we were so busy converting the inside we ran out of time to do any mechanical servicing before setting off! We ended up taking the bus into a garage in our first week on the road. Driving up the steep hills around Whitby set off a noisy alarm from an unidentified warning buzzer. The garage did a thorough check on it but couldn’t find any fault. It does occasionally still go off if we have been driving hard for a couple of hours. We have also just had a new power steering pump fitted as the power steering failed part way through a three-point turn on the seafront in Felixtowe. We spent the night wild camping next to the beach huts. The next day we rang the RAC, got a tow to Ipswich and amazingly we got the bus fixed within the day.”

Getting the electrics sorted out and having hot water on board proved to be relatively easy though. There were some electrics in when they bought the library. There was a 240v distribution board and a couple of sockets, an inverter and a bank of 12 fork lift truck style batteries that weighed around 240kg that used to power the disabled access lift.

James explained the options: “I got a professional auto electrician in to change the batteries, fit a split charger and voltage dropper to give us the option of 12 or 24v.  All the walls were studded out for insulating so the wiring went in there before they were lined, there is also cable boxes running at high level around the bus making it easier to run the wiring.”

Quaint bunting from recycled elementsThey installed a Malaga 4E 14l water heater, which was the biggest heater they could fit for the budget of under £500.  For water they put in two 90-litre water tanks under the bus these were the biggest tanks they could fit in the space. This was one of the trickiest parts of the conversion, building a cradle to support the two tanks.

Heading into winter the family needed to keep warm but there was a mishap before they even got started, as James explained, “The bus originally had a diesel water heater, radiators and hot air blowers on board which we took out in favour of a wood burning stove. Budget was tight but we found someone selling wood burners made to order for boats and cabins online. The stove was due for delivery the week before we set off but never turned up. After a few phone calls we eventually found out that the courier delivery van had been stolen along with all the contents including our stove! The fabricator couldn’t deliver another until two days after we set off so we had it delivered to a place we were staying at, 10 days into the journey. This time the stove arrived safely and we fitted it as soon as it arrived.”

The gas hob with maps on the wallOnce underway the couple found that the mobile home guzzled petrol and, as they had to be financially self-sufficient for the entire trip, it meant earning as they went. For James this involved swapping his time and labour and in return getting to park on people’s land and use their electricity. It  kept their costs down, meant meeting new people and learning new skills. So far they have been looking after animals, putting up a greenhouse, renovating a kitchen, apple pressing and making wine, and even creating a new café space in a National Trust property in Kent.

Jo is also doing paid work for the things they can’t swap such as fuel and the weekly food shop.  Besides the Effortless Meditation courses she’s running as they travel she also works as an associate for a number of organisations as a coach and facilitator so is continuing to do some of that work, either from the bus as we travel or by taking a couple of days out from travelling to head off in a hire car for a couple of days work at a time.

Meanwhile the couple’s children are loving the adventure so far because they easily adapt to new things. They have been on the beach several times each week, been to lots of parks, museums, met new people. Jo pointed out that, “They go to bed at night shattered from the new experiences they are having each day!”

The table work areaOf course, with taking children out of school for a year the onus is on the parents to do a good job of running a home education regime. Jo explained how it was working out, “The kids’ education is a big part of the trip, they will experience so much through the year. We counted up the number of places visited in the first few weeks and found that we had been on the equivalent of 10 school trips so far. Annie, age 8, is a big reader and has read 20+ books on her Kindle since setting off. She has enjoyed visiting museums, something we couldn’t interest her in previously. Oscar, age 4, is currently teaching himself to read, write and count with the help of some exercise books and my tablet! Seeing him progress has been amazing so far. Both kids are keeping scrapbooks about the year and Annie is also blogging.

They are all keeping in touch with the rest of the world thanks to 3G mobile internet on their devices. It’s worked fine so far, even in some rural places. The route plan for the year was to start off at Saltburn-by-the-Sea at the end of September 2014, travel south through Lincolnshire, then Norfolk and Suffolk. They are currently in Kent. They are aiming for the southwest for the end of December where they will stay until early February. Then, travel up through Wales, the West coast, popping in to see their family and friends in Lancashire before heading up to Scotland in late spring/early summer. Finally they will travel back down through Northumberland to Saltburn. With no deadlines or schedules their plan is to be as open as possible about when and where they stop and they may well get stuck somewhere they like for six months before heading back on the road again.

Lighting int he loungeThe family outside the bus

Carrying bikes on the back

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