Ever thought of packing it in, selling all your worldly possessions and heading wherever the wind takes you? Well that’s what Karen Binedell and her family have done... it’s more challenging than it sounds, but definitely not without its rewards.  

Living with a teenager can be testing at the best of times. Now imagine living with three of them. Then, envision an additional two cats and everything you own inhabiting an 8-x-2-metre touring caravan.

Scared yet? Well that is my reality and has been since my husband and I convinced our three kids to go along with our plan of selling (pretty much) everything that we owned, moving into the aforementioned caravan and travelling Europe while volunteering. 

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Winter in the caravan at a campsite just outside St.Albans © Karen Binedell

What prompted this decision? Well, like so many families, our lives had gotten to the point where we were working 6-day weeks; our salaries went in at the end of the month and out the next day. We seemed to fall a little further behind every month. The only time we had together as a family was each Sunday and two weeks summer holiday in August. We were stressed, tired and overworked and had got to the point where we knew we wanted more for ourselves and our children.

Although our plan may sound like a relatively simple undertaking for the more adventurous among you, I can assure you it wasn’t just a matter of packing it all in and setting off on our travels. To start with, we spent 18 months living in our caravan prior to leaving the UK. That’s 18 months going about our regular lives and returning to a campsite each day. A full 18 months of five people getting ready for work and school in an area smaller than our previous bedroom. A year and a half of living frugally and putting every spare penny we earned into our savings. 

In preparation for the journey that lay ahead, all five of us also had to become familiar with the daily running of the caravan as well as how to assemble and disassemble our awning. We had to take turns filling the water tanks and emptying the loo, and we had to whittle down our clothing to one plastic storage container each. We had to research options for education – and eventually decided to enroll the kids in an online college called Wolsey Hall Oxford, which has exceeded our expectations and is giving them a world-class education. We learnt which safety checks needed to be completed each and every time we hitched up, and most importantly, we found a way to comfortably share such a small space.

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Kayaking down the Mondego River © Karen Binedell

To start with, there was a lot of squabbling and there were a number of times where one, or two, or all three of the children would say something to the effect of, "I hate this caravan!", "Why can’t we just be normal again?" or "You’re ruining my life!" We had friends and family who made it very clear that they thought that we were making a huge mistake, and there were many nights where I lay awake wondering whether they were right. However, despite the doubt, the apprehension and the utter fear of taking the road less travelled (literally), we followed through with our plans.

At present we are seven months into our journey, which has seen us make our way from St. Albans in Hertfordshire, across the Atlantic to Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium and now the Netherlands. Our volunteer projects via Workaway have given us the opportunity to learn new skills and find hidden talents we never knew existed. We have been welcomed with open arms at every stop and we have learnt an incredible amount about the culture, history, food and customs of all the countries we’ve visited.

In Portugal, we worked on organic farms where we learnt how to clear and care for the land, the importance of bees, and when, where and how to plant various fruits, vegetables and trees. We were taught how to drive a tractor, how to mix cement and plaster walls and how to take down and replace an entire farmhouse roof!

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Learning about beekeeping in Portugal © Karen Binedell

In Spain, we discovered that when things don’t go according to plan, it’s not the end of the world – there’s usually something bigger and better on the horizon. In reality, this meant us being turned away from a campsite because our caravan was too large; instead sleeping on the side of the motorway and arriving at our next volunteer project only to find that it was not at all what it had been portrayed as. But without this experience we would never have happened upon a very special family just 45 minutes away. They knew we needed some help, and happily offered us a place to park our caravan and call home for a few weeks.

In France, we pitched up at the abode of an eccentric, fun-loving French- Belgian family who made it their duty to teach us exactly how to throw the most amazing 40th birthday party ever! When we weren’t celebrating or discussing all the possibilities for the future, they put us to work in their nursery and schooled us in the principles of permaculture. France also saw us experience first-hand what it takes to run a successful campsite when we spent seven weeks volunteering in Chalandray. Belgium taught us that you can never have too much beer or frits.

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Cycling in Utrecht © Karen Binedell

Here we stayed with three different families and learnt to take care of and train horses and ponies; how to drive an articulating forklift and to fell trees in the pouring rain. And as I type this, I’m sitting in the grand zaal of a beautiful B&B in the Netherlands. We have only been here for five days but have already formed a strong bond with the family. Earlier this afternoon my husband, Warren, the kids and I hopped on bicycles and explored the city of Utrecht. We set off on this adventure to teach our children that there is so much more to life than Xbox and Instagram.

We wanted them to experience other cultures, learn new languages and try traditional foods. We wanted them to master new skills and find their own passion, but more than that, we hoped volunteering would help them realise that there is so much more to be gained by simply giving back. Have we succeeded? Without a doubt! Over and above the life skills gained and lessons learned we have had the opportunity to visit some truly amazing places.

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Belgian waffles in Brussels © Karen Binedell

We have been to the top of the Serra da Estrela mountain range, kayaked down the Mondego River, learnt to surf in Aljezur and celebrated Father’s Day at a water park in Spain. The past seven months has seen our family grow and mature in ways we never could have imagined and our attitudes towards money and material possessions have changed completely. We are happier, healthier and almost entirely stress free – I wouldn’t change our nomadic lifestyle for the world.

And let’s just say the whining and squabbles seem to have died down too! 

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Karen and her family are funding their travels with their savings and through writing for local and international publications while on the go. Follow their journey at @ourtravellingfamily on Twitter and Instagram. 

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