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The Backwards Van meets The Sometimes Shed

A couple of months ago, I came across a post online seeking a winter caretaker for a small plot of land. The tiny caravan and shed, refered to by the owner as a farm, was completely offgrid (and probably completely lacking the planning permission necessary for its very existence) and conveniently located miles from nowhere, in a wild empty pocket in the far west of Ireland, as westerly as one can get without falling off this little green country altogether. I can’t lie, I fell in love, with the place, the land, the idea of it all, and quickly.

We did the maths. Two months stationary could save us at least €60 a week or more, and the coldest two months of the year are typically the most expensive in diesel and butane gas for heating, and the most frustrating in dealing with parking on icesheets, defrosting frozen pipes and breathing into frozen keyholes at 2am. We could set up camp, for free, and I could sit for a minute and write, it just made sense and I had us moved in already in my head. Unpacking Dixie, stacking my books onto a temporary shelf and lighting a fire, having a little stability, consistency and safety for the worst and winteriest weather of the season.

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That photo above? That’s not the place I’m talking about. That’s another shed I fell in love with once. What is it about old sheds? Potential, that’s what. Especially the empty ones, they’re full of it.

Dixie needs some work done. Not just the basic mechanical stuff required to pass her dreaded roadworthiness test, but a couple of shelves built into the kitchen cupboard too and a set of drawers by the bed. One of my greatest annoyances in vanlife is the absense of a decent bookshelf and that problem could be easily rectified if we had the tools or space to stop travelling for long enough to actually build something. The road maps and the atlases tower over F. Scott and Steinbeck so the proposed shelf won’t be regulaton size and requires design. Another coat of skyblue paint on the ceiling and a few cosmetic touch-ups elsewhere are all planned for the old Ducato and that involves long days us being out of the van and in a house. The floor could do with new lino throughout. The exterior roof needs repainting and sealing. That definitely requires a shed or storage of some description to park her under.

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Unfortunately, the tiny farm caretakers position was snapped up by somebody local to the land and my dreams of a quiet, cozy and extra-frugal winter season were dashed but something had changed in The Backwards Van nonetheless. The thought alone had caused a conversation and we went on to research all kinds of other ideas to retreat from the worst of the winter weather and found copious options available. There are eco-communities around England that offer places to learn the skills necessary to live off-grid, unfortunately most require payment. Some appear to be a little too new-agey for our tastes with meditation and mindfulness classes at dawn. Many people offer their private land for vans to parkup in exchange for a few hours of manual labour a day. Mostly these seem to be couples or young families who have bought into the offgrid dream, picking an unspoiled little town in the South of France or better yet, the more recent favourite Bulgaria. An old farmhouse or homestead that may have been a very cheap property to purchase but very deserted and unlived-in for decades, maybe the scale of clear-up requires more bodies and more time than originally anticipated. These work-park ideas are probably a good idea for solo travellers and budgetting types (most basic arrangements will afford you three square meals a day) or for people who prefer or crave structure, even when travelling, if those people actually exist. However, there is absolutely no value to us in spending our time working somebody else’s land in exchange for a bowl of chickpea curry and a parking spot. Parking is available all over the world for free. Labour is labour and all labourers in our opinion should be paid, in cash. We might as well work our own land, if we had any. I don’t even like curry.

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Dealing with the planning people in Ireland (and probably anywhere else) is next to impossible. You can own land but not legally live in your vehicle on said land. That’s not even the most frustrating part about the various regulatory bodies responsible but in the interest of positivity I won’t bang on about it, there are plenty of forums to visit if you want to wallow in the stupid, ill-conceived, discriminatory and environmentally disastrous practises of your local county council. We don’t. We want a solution that works for us. So we got talking about sheds. An old shed already has permission to exist. And googling sheds and looking at sheds online and learning about shed renovations and insulation, we uncovered some amazing, inspirational, Instagrammable spaces created all from just the basic shell of the humble shed. The best part is we could continue to live in Dixie, in the shed or not, while we tackled the various projects involved. A sometimes shed. Full of optimism, we hit the ground and start shed hunting. And we found many. And almost every time, I fell in love again, with the wide open spaces, the impossibly high rafters, the dark shadowy corners. Some have huge skylights, puncturing the cobwebbed darkness with rectangle slices of light. Some have massive, heavy steel doors made for mammoth machines and some have more gentle entrances too, for the humans, an office partition or a kitchen or an old desk space. Some rest high on red spindly legs like old rusty AT-ATs from a galaxy far, far away. Most of them could easily fit a 1997 Ducato under their corrugated eaves. Most of them we agreed we’d live in. The possibilities of a shed really are endless.

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The only thing we couldn’t do to plan a shed conversion of any sort is cost it. We knew by now what’s important to us in a shed (the shelter, access to water, a septic solution or space to build one and the capability to live completely off-grid one day) so the conversation turned to where, not what. If we plan on owning this shed forever, and having a base to come and go on our travels (all I could think of is I could finally leave my books safely stored instead of taking them everywhere we go) it would have to be a good shed, in a good location, for a good price. A base would make our travels so much cheaper and easier in the long run (after the initial purchase probably drains our account dry) and we could have and store the things that housepeople take for granted.

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14 months of vanlife has confirmed that we would live in just about anything. Any shed, outhouse, shipping container, derelict ruin, any enclosed space no matter how tiny or far away or strange it is, in fact sometimes with us, the stranger the better. We would live in a train, a plane, a bus or a boat or a tent if the weather allowed. Anything can be converted into a living space. This marvel below is a piece of artwork called The Atom: Panoptican, a weird smooth orb laid high in the East Lancashire hills. One glorious summers day we dawdled down the path to the alien ovoid in silence, took one look around and said in unison “we’d live here”. We don’t need much to be happy and comfortable, we know this. The poor sightseers, walking behind us to see the sight must have gotten the fright of their lives, our peels of laughter echoing around the cement egg, erupting from the misplaced mishapen windows.

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Talking about buying a sometimes shed is one thing, but finding one for sale is another thing entirely. After many important discussions about grown-up things like “What We Want For The Future” (and the really romantic realisation of when ‘The Future’ turns into ‘Our Future’) we have compiled A List. We asked ourselves: If money was no obstruction, where in the world would we own this shed? Some decisions were a given, like the first few. Other things were added to the list later and are quite… specific (Personally, I’d like bats)

-Ireland, Republic of

-Wild as possible, rural as possible, very low population density

-End of laneway, end of road, end of the earth if at all possible

-Sea view (Atlantic preferred, will settle for a faraway smudgy ribbon of blue on the horizon though)

-Dark skies area (there are only a few in Ireland so that’s quite specific, we’d be happy just to be really near one)

-Nature, bog, wildlife, ocean, beaches and bats

You can see this list began pointing us very west very quickly. We won’t be in the sometimes shed much as we hope to be travelling most of the year but if we had time to convert something beautiful ourselves, this dream shed could become our forever home too.

Things that are important in both a forever home AND a sometimes shed include:

-A large, safe bookshelf, suitable for all formats and publications.

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In its former life, this majestic mansion was an aircraft carrier storage warehouse. We found it on a decommissioned RAF base and we’d both definitely live here. Questions would be raised about heating such a giant room but having a small, insulated, vehicular bedroom like Dixie would solve that issue. We see a range of possibilities in such a large and bright empty space!

Living in Dixie has had its challenges and struggles but it has taught us so much, mostly about our needs, our wants and how to seperate the two. We understand now exactly how little (or how much) of everything we need to live comfortably. We are not going to settle for “getting by”, we are not going to fall into an expensive mortgage trap or a lengthy commute and we don’t have to be thoughtless consumers either. It might be possible to convert an innocuous old shed into a comfortable and stealthy living space. The planning people don’t care about what they can’t see.

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This space above is a little too small to live in but of course we both like the look of that blue trailer. Some campers tug trailers like these with long white tent poles affixed inside, extending and assembling into cool canvas huts. What a great project, to design and build a trailer tent. If only we had some sort of shed as a workshop.

The most important thing, even more so than any books or bats or beach or bog is that the shed (and whatever land it happens to be on) not cost us anything to keep when we are not there. Quite simply put, it has to be affordable for us to buy outright (with the remains of our savings) and soon. This is when our years of consistently frugal everyday choices are vindicated and every penny saved has its time to shine.

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Looking at sheds is hypnotising, fascinating, exciting and pointless all at the same time. It’s a strange thing to study. Sheds for sale are on land for sale obviously and it’s not possible to seperate the two. The sheds we loved most were not even for sale, I told you, it’s a pointless task. Sheds always seem to attract other sheds and outhouses and that usually makes them in farmyards. We can’t afford nor do we want to buy a farmyard. And as the lowest filter available on the online property searches is €25,000 (€10,000 is more our range) we found ourselves involved in a trawl of the cheapest, scrubbiest soil for sale in all of Ireland. Lucky we are in no hurry!

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Where you see a dirty old toilet, we celebrate the existence of indoor plumbing. (Dont worry, we also see the toilet)

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Where you see a hole in the wall, we see a large entrance, big enough for a van. And we see a hole in the wall too. We’re just… extremely flexible.

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Some old sheds are all barred up with steel and locked fast with heavy bolts, we peeked through broken panes to see inside this little one. Nothing but the spiky thorny bushes in there now, taking over the space, growing in gnarled handfuls and pushing out everything, even the light.

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It doesn’t really matter how pretty a shed isn’t, we can always paint over the cracks.

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There. Much better.

Does buying a sometimes shed mean The Backwards Van is coming to an end? Not at all. It means travelling will be easier, lighter and slightly more organised as any superflous equipment and clothes are jettisoned there. It means no more storing our entire library on the road. It will definitely help me sit still and concentrate on some ideas for a few weeks at a time. Buying land with a structure on it hopefully means an address (which in turn means a vote) and maybe in the future a home of some description. Offgrid solutions and interesting ideas for future self sustainably all start with a base, a place, a homestead. We’re open to anything and will keep looking for the right roof for all three of us to rest under for a while.

So the search for the Sometimes Shed continues. We know what we want and we will certainly know it when we see it. Until then, ideas will continue to fly around. We would live in a tree but even that is subject to planning regulations. A tree house in a shed, could it (or some strange variant of) be done?

One more hut before I go. This below is Campbell’s Tavern (a.k.a. The Tav) in Headford, County Galway. A great pub with a really great pizza menu and look what a little colour and some strategic lighting does to their basic shed!

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Painting, plumbing, lights and even treehouses aside, I’d just settle for a shed with a decent bookshelf anyday.

Ps- between writing and publishing this no-doubt fascinating insight into our thoughts about sheds, we happened upon this blue beaut below. Would you believe me if I told you that, pending proof of the presence of bats, this little place fits the bill… exactly?! AND more?! AND it’s for sale?!

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