A Very Vanlife Christmas – Leith to Penicuik

by Dec 28, 2019Nomad Life, Scotland

It’s Friday the 27th December and the gentle patter of rain wakes me in Iggy’s drop down bed. It is still dark, and the early morning fog in my brain swirls clear both as slowly, and as suddenly, as a real life ground mist on a sunny dawn. We’re parked up in Musselburgh, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, and it’s the day after Boxing Day. Our third Christmas season in Iggy is over.

Amazingly I’ve managed an entire six hours night time sleep, and I’m in good spirits as I slide from the covers to write up the blog while Jay catches up on his rest. Marley yawns from her sofa as I pad round the early morning van making coffee. She’s thankfully in no hurry to get up yet, and I let her curl back up to sleep as I settle in “my” seat and open the laptop. Now we’re sitting comfortably – as the saying goes – then I shall begin.

Our Boxing Day stopover in Musselburgh

Christmas Eve saw a very different start to the day for me. Jay was working night shift and once again I hadn’t slept a wink from insomnia. I was desperately tired by the time he came home at eight a.m. and wanted nothing more but to crawl in beside him and sleep for a month. But I also, even more desperately, wanted to stay awake, tough it out, and get back into a proper sleep cycle. It was Christmas! I wanted to see some daylight!

Jay, ever the helpful travelling companion, clambered into bed with his phone in hand. His headphones were in, and the tinny sound of loud music sounded like nails on a blackboard to my sleep deprived brain. He was listening for today’s instructions for a competition he’s been playing on local radio. They were giving away £100,000 for Christmas, and who knew? Someone had to win it? Right?

Right. But if I didn’t get away from that awful, irritating, making my skin crawl, tinny sound, then our adorable Jay was not going to make it to Christmas Day! It was either kill him, blow torch his phone, or get moving and go take some photos of the docklands in the early morning light.

We didn’t have a blow torch… Maybe lucky, maybe sad – I’ll let you decide. And killing Jay was totally out of the question as I’d miss him way too much. I did on the other hand really want to grab a few photos of the docks and Shore area, and stay awake!

Bag? Check. Camera? Check. Scarf? Check. And, leaving Marley behind for once, I opened the door and was gone.

Sometimes it feels good just to be me.

It only took a few steps for a surge of heady, energising exhiliration to hit me and blow away my weariness – temporarily at least. I could probably count with both hands the amount of times I’d been out of the van on my own, since we found Marley twenty three months ago. I love that dog to Pluto and back, but it sure felt good to be just me for a change. To be able to lose myself in looking at the world around me. Taking shots. Not having to stop for sniffs, and pees, and just generally not having to be responsible for somebody else.

It had been a while since we’d spent any time in Edinburgh, and I’d not seen the area in the daylight since we arrived two nights ago. Leith had been our home before we got Iggy, and we’d started off our Nomad vanlife dream down at these very docks. Spending our first night as fulltimers beside the little park opposite Ocean Terminal, way back in April 2017.

The park was gone now, turned into a building site at the end of August last year. And the old spot where the vans used to park outside the Scottish Government buildings is no more.

I remembered Marley playing here as a pup, when we were newly returned with her from Greece. The other vanfolk we chatted to from time to time. Office workers having lunch on the grass in summer sunshine. Fitness classes building muscle on the exercise bars. The old fox that used to dart between the trees in the quiet of night.

All gone now. Trees, grass, fox, dogs. Replaced by the skeletons of five storey flats. A few terraced townhouses already occupied on the fringes of the building site. More unaffordable housing, cramming out the light in what is already the most densely populated area in the city.

I think of the private parks that dot the posher parts of town just up the road. Exclusive areas of green, kept for just a very few, privileged people. While here in Leith a tiny, well used, area of green is demolished for hundreds of new homes.

I’d love to see the old swing bridge in action once more.

I pass on. Walking a circuit past the demolished park. The beautiful old swing bridge – disused now and in disrepair. Cut off from the docks by city planners unable to see the massive attraction of a working, historical bridge. Or the Marina it could lead to in the old harbour, drawing visitors and locals alike to watch boats come and go from across the world. Instead the few that line The Shore are mostly offices. Static, of little interest beyond a pretty picture or two.

The morning streets are much quieter than I expected for Christmas Eve as I work my way back towards Iggy. Grabbing my laptop I treat myself to a coffee and the electric sockets in Starbucks at Ocean Terminal – the shopping centre next door. We’ve not moved for two days, and it’s been a week since the leisure batteries showed above 13 volts on the van display board.

The old Brittania nestled behind Ocean Terminal shopping centre

Winter in Scotland is heavy on the batteries. Heating running almost constantly and only seven hours of daylight means a lot of electricity used. And with no input from our solar panel we need to drive every day to keep the voltage up. Even then a blast on electric hook up every two or three weeks is pretty mush a must at this time of year in the North.

It was worth the price of the coffee then to be able to plug in the laptop. Spend a few hours working on photos without worrying about the power. And go home with a fully charged device to boot!

The rest of the daylight hours slid past far too quickly, and the last of my energy took a massive dip as the darkness started to close in again. Jay was working in Penicuik the following day, and it was time to wake him before I was too tired to move. We needed to grab a few groceries and fill up with diesel and gas before the shops closed. Then find a spot in Penicuik to spend the night. It would mean an extra hour and a half in bed for him in the morning.

The chores, as always, took three times longer than expected and it was nearly nine o’clock by the time Iggy rolled into the spot I had found for us. A small parking area for about twelve vehicles, next to a river and miles of cycle path. And only a twenty minute walk to work for Jay in the morning.
Van parked, and dog walked, my weary mind and body finally gave up on me. It was Christmas Eve and Jay and I had barely seen each other bar running errands. But the cosy couple of hours on Netflix I craved with my best buddy was not going to happen. Cranky and brain dead I crawled into the bed, and finally to sleep.

Seven precious hours later my eyes sprang open at half past four on Christmas morning. It was far too early to get up, but I was instantly wide awake. I curled against Jay’s warm, sleeping back and let my mind drift for half an hour before my bladder forced me out from the blankets. All was silent apart from the birds. The odd hoot of an owl settling down for sleep, as I grabbed a breakfast banana, and reached inside the wardrobe for clean socks.

Marley’s tail began to thump against the sofa the second I reached for the socks. I hate to have anything on my feet if I don’t need to, and she knows the socks mean I’m going out. It’s only half past five, but if we go now there will be no other dog walkers. Nobody to be upset by forty kilos of Greek mountain dog hurtling at them in the dark. Scaring the heck out of them as she tries her best, huge fanged, sleeve tugging to get them to play.

Her intentions are good, but sadly, it means she mostly has to stay on the lead. Apart from these times. Our early morning, and late at night forays into the cold and dark that most dog owners don’t care for. Just me and Marley, and the whole wild world to ourselves.

Merry Christmas baby dog. I brought you some freedom.

Lots of wild places and new smells for Marley’s Christmas


Back in the van I offer Jay breakfast, but he’s tired and has a twelve and a half hour shift ahead. He opts for every last second in bed, so I make porridge for myself and read quietly in the corner. Staying out of the way as the alarm goes off and he has a quick fifteen minutes getting ready. Then it’s –

“Merry Christmas. See you later.” and he’s gone.

It would be easy to be sad at spending Christmas on my own, but I’d really rather not, so I chose to be happy instead. The extra money was going towards meeting some family in a villa in Salobrena in Southern Spain in six weeks time. Jay was working with patients in a community setting today, and would have a funtime making Christmas special with them.

As for me – Netflix had just released a second season of Lost in Space, and I could think of an awful lot worse ways to spend Christmas than binge watching Sci Fi and walking in the woods with my furry Greek friend.

And so the day passed in a pleasant haze of deadly robots, and long walks along river paths dotted with strangers calling “Merry Christmas”.

The smiling faces made up for the one man, in his late thirties or early forties, shouting,

“Time to wake up! Santa’s been already!” as he walked past the van.

Random hassle from a stranger on Christmas Day. For being parked, out of the way, in a car park. Blinds up. Bothering nobody. As much a part of vanlife as the night time hooting of the owls, and the early morning fox as we returned from our walk.

But the foxes and the owls are much more common. And so are smiles, and interested questions. Friendly faces exclaiming – “I’d love to do that!”

And then the day was nearly over. Nine o’clock at night and Jay was home from his long day. We don’t much bother with presents anymore. Everything we want and need is already here. And by the time Jay settled in, and Marley had her last walk, my eyes were closing from my early start. There barely seemed time for a quick “hello” before we both gave in to tiredness and crawled off to bed. We would have our Christmas another day. But for now… we just wanted to sleep.

The day people were all gone – back to their houses. In the morning we would leave without a trace. But for tonight we had the woods to ourselves. The gurgling of the river, the low, mellow hooting of the owls. We had Iggy, Marley, our old pal DM and each other. And always, always… we had the road.

Life was good. And it was more than enough.

Fi. x

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