A little over a year ago, Ailsa and Paul purchased a van.
“Hank is a 2009, long wheel base, Iveco Daily,” Ailsa recounts. “It was originally used as a carpet layers van before we converted it. In fact, our first job when we started the conversion was getting rid of all the carpets and tools that had been left in the van by the previous owner.”
The couple went straight to converting it into something they could use to travel around Europe.
“Paul wanted to do the van life thing for a long time before I got on board,” she says of her counterpart, A Liverpool native. “Home of the Beatles…” she adds.
Born in Scotland, Ailsa spent her childhood growing up in Australia, until one day Paul showed up. “We met in Australia,” she begins, “and have spent time living and working in both Melbourne and Liverpool, and have been lucky enough to travel together throughout Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Europe.”
They were admittedly new to the concept of converting a van. “It was a bit of a nightmare fitting it in around full-time jobs,” she admits, “but with a lot of blood, sweat and tears we got there in the end and have never looked back.” Their van’s name is Hank, and after a few trips around the UK, Hank and his crew decided to hit the European road full-time.
“We booked the Eurotunnel and set off with some savings,” Ailsa continues, “our two Golden Retrievers and no real timeline or plan. We spent nine months traveling throughout France, Spain and Portugal doing whatever we fancied day by day.”
Which is where the story veers from your average hit-the-road-in-a-van story.
“We were in the middle of our European road trip,” she recalls, “and I woke up one morning to a very excited Paul who had been up on his phone researching bus conversions all night. His first words to me as soon as I opened my eyes were ‘I really want to convert a bus’. It didn’t take much convincing to get me on board with the idea.”
The couple cut their trip short and set sail for the beginning of their newest adventure: back home.
They were looking for double-decker buses, camped next to a park in Madrid, when they came across, as Ailsa puts it, “we came across the listing for a proper American school bus for sale in England.” A Scottish-born woman and her British husband sitting in a van outside of a park in Spain looking to buy an American school bus. That’s the stuff movies are made of.
“We loved it from the first second we saw it and as soon as we found out it hadn’t been snapped up, we decided to beeline straight back to England. A week later we were the proud owners of ‘Otto’ the skoolie.”
After securing Otto, they needed a place they could park him, do the renovation. They eventually found a farm, through no small lack of effort, where all of this could come to fruition.
“We don’t own the farm, but we were lucky to find the most idyllic spot with bags of space to park up our bus,” Ailsa says, relieved. They knew that would be the biggest part of the puzzle, a place to, well, place their home while they not only built it, but eventually lived in it between their travels in Hank.
“The best advice we could give anyone looking to do this,” she confesses, “is to get out and talk to people, you are not going to find what you need through an online search alone. We had to knock on doors and get talking to find our ideal spot and it made all the difference. The stigma that surrounds people that live this way can work against you, and in our experience, we found that it helps to meet people face to face so they can get a feel for you and vice versa – after all you will essentially be neighbors!”
Ailsa and Paul have created a masterpiece of a school bus on a farm, and even if Instagram can crop out the occasional nastiness outside of its square boxes, that means nothing for what this couple has discovered while hopping from vandwelling Europe to homesteading in a skoolie.
“We were spending silly sums of money living in rented apartments in city centres,” Ailsa recalls of paying rent which simply means paying someone else’s mortgage. “We were working hard and earning decent wages in good jobs, but huge portions were going straight on rent, bills and commuting to offices we were spending far too many hours in. It felt like we were living to work – stuck in a very familiar loop so many people seem to find themselves in.”
They ended up getting a couple of dogs, those Golden Retrievers mentioned earlier, by the names of Berg and Mari. The dogs were the inspiration for Ailsa’s realization, “It wasn’t work, expensive apartments or new clothes every week. We were finally on the same page and made the decision to save up, downsize our belongings, sell what we didn’t need and give van life a go.”
A self-admitted shopaholic, Ailsa doesn’t use this old quip lightly. It’s not easy for everyone to downsize into a van, a school bus or otherwise. But, she says, “We had an incredible time on the road, making memories and friends along the way. Having the luxury of time and space to think really helps you to see that there are other ways to approach life. In the end, the only reason we decided to put an end to our road trip was to reinvest in a different type of home, a skoolie to help set us up for our future.”
Some people look at their life, their job, as a career. They’ll struggle and work and advance over some twenty or thirty years, working their way to some distant goal. Others buy a van, get the itch to do things their way, and end up living on a farm in a skoolie they’ve converted.
“We don’t live this way because we don’t have other options, or because we don’t want to work for a living. We are both ambitious professionals – Paul has a PhD from the University of Cambridge and has run his own successful business and I’ve worked in PR for some big names in sport. We decided to live this way because it allows us the opportunity to explore new careers, start our own business, buy property outright or emigrate to the other side of the world if we so decide!”
They have fashioned the life they want, on their terms.
As to the mechanics of it, Ailsa and Paul left their tour of Europe to return to this new farm, this new American school bus, only to continue living in their van, she remembers, “on what was essentially a bit of a junk yard” to make it all happen.
Ailsa continued working a full-time job as Paul approached the build.
“It was hard work and not an ideal scenario,” as life transitions rarely are, “but totally worth it. Through sheer determination and incredible work ethic Paul managed to smash out the build in under three months. It was really exciting seeing the progress he’d made each day when I got in from work. When it eventually came time to move the bus onto the farm and start putting in cushions and making the bed it was a bit surreal – it felt like only yesterday it was packed with bus seats.”
They moved out of their van, and into their school bus.
“The first night we slept in the bus was the best. Partly because we had an entire bed to ourselves with no dogs taking up all our leg room like they had in the van, but mainly because of the incredible feeling of waking up in this lovely space we had dreamt up and created on our own.”
Ailsa’s conviction toward living an alternate life, in the eyes of society perhaps, and following whatever path seems the most beautiful to any one human’s eyes is spring dew on a flower after you’ve woken up from a coma. Like water downhill, she sees what simple conviction and allowing the forces of nature to guide you can do, until what could simply have become another human life waterfalls into something a bit more.
She speaks of feeling, at times, like an outsider, though even the story of how they met is somewhat remarkable.
She was working for CSIRO–Australia’s national science agency–and Paul was wrapping up his Ph.D when he found his way to Melbourne (if you’re American, you didn’t pronounce it right) with his PostDoc in sight.
“He was brand new to the country and didn’t know anyone,” she remembers, “so I offered to show him around. Paul will tell you a different story and to this day maintains that I asked him out on our first date. Either way, I guess we hit it off and seven years…and many adventures later, we now find ourselves living in a bus on the other side of the world.”
Ailsa and Paul will continue to travel in their van, Hank. They’ll continue working and homesteading Cheshire in their school bus. She has ideas about how they’ll travel in either, if they pull Otto from her farm life, but mostly she seems content with the paths they’ve taken.
“We would 100% absolutely do it all over again, no question about it. We literally love this life, it is not for everyone and it is not always easy, but for us this is a life that makes sense in so many ways.” They both understand fully how lucky they are to have one another, traveling partners, willing explorers in these fractions of a century we have to call our lives.
Despite having crafted what some might call a fairy tale, or at worst a life of knowledge, experience, love and dedication, Ailsa isn’t so sure the world is ready to except mass tiny house living quite yet.
“There really is still a stigma that surrounds this type of lifestyle and from the outside people can often see it as a sacrifice. We made a conscious choice to veer from the socially accepted first home owners’ path and hope that in doing so we manage to fight some of the preconceived notions surrounding van or bus life.”
She appreciates what living small and, if you want, mobile promises.
“The main thing that living van or skoolie life affords you is flexibility and freedom. You literally have a home that can move any time you choose, and minimal outgoings means you can put money away for a rainy day. We are happy where we are for the meantime, but we also take each day as it comes – it’s more fun that way.”
Her closing statement, perhaps, sums up their life’s philosophy.
“Our bright yellow skoolie is the first step in us building a bright future.