But while well-to-do Mary Shepherd’s offbeat lifestyle was sparked by a misguided notion that she needed to hide from the police, Gloucestershire’s own lady in a van made a deliberate decision to do so at a much younger age.
After converting a four-wheeled fruit and veg shop from the Forest of Dean into her first mobile home in the 1980s, Jill Raymond hit the road and spent nearly three decades moving up the new age housing ladder.
Her second home was a larger Mercedes van and then she upgraded to a £10,000, 7.5 tonne, solar- powered DAF truck boasting mod-cons like power steering and a shower.
For much of that time Jill did the same as the rest of us: wake up, go to work, come home, cook a meal and get ready for work the next day.
Except she commuted by motorbike and did not have to live for the weekend because whenever the mood or circumstances took her, she could up sticks and join a political protest, take a college course or simply head out for an unknown adventure making money by busking.
“I used to reckon I needed thirty quid a week,” she said of life on the road. “ A tenner for diesel, a tenner for food and a tenner for drink. That was it really.
“I needed the tenner for drink because in places like Ireland the pubs is where you learned the music.”
I didn’t want to be working all my life to pay the rent
Although new age travelling was quite common in the 1990s, Jill travelled solo, which was unusual for a young woman.
“It wasn’t part of a big plan,” she explained. “I knew I did not want to get married, I knew I did not want kids and even if I could have afforded mortgage, I knew I didn’t want one because it looked like a ball and chain to me.
“As a single woman you don’t have that many options. Nobody is going to give you a council or housing association home so you end up in the private sector.
“I didn’t want to be working all my life to pay the rent so I just found another way of putting a roof over my head.
“When I started out I didn’t know how long it would for but as it turned out, it suited me because I like to have a change of scenery and there’s a lot of community to be had.”
If my father said be home by six you were home by six
So how did a grammar-school educated, woman from a respectable family, her father was a teacher, become a new age traveller?
Her parents, who met at an RAF training camp in Herefordshire always expected her to “settle down” but while her father never approved her mother visited the van.
“All my schooling was in London and looking back I acknowledge I had the advantage, I’m not going to say privilege because the two things get muddled up, but I had the advantage of going to an all girls grammar school,” she explains.
“I had what was regarded as a fairly good education for the time and although I did not fit in with the clique, there wasn’t all the bullying and sexting you have now.
“Discipline was very strict so on one level our lives were very contained. On the other hand during the school holidays and weekends we were kicked out to play.
“We were told not to talk to strange men so we didn’t. It was a pretty free roaming childhood but if dad told us to be home by six we had to be home by six.”
I saw Jimi Hendrix at the Ram Jam Club
When Jill was 15 the family moved from London to the New Forest and she hated it.
“I had been to see Jimi Hendrix at the Ram Jam Club by the time I was 15,” she said. “When they moved us to the sticks it felt so wrong so I only stayed there for a year. I got a job in an office and moved away.”
Back in London the talented artist enrolled in college to study textiles and was headhunted as a furniture fabric designer by a firm in Cambridgeshire where she went to live.
But at the age of 23 she fractured her pelvis in a bad motorbike accident and ended up following a boyfriend to Bristol where she worked as a weaver and a home help with social services so she could save up to go travelling.
Determined to visit a friend in Calcutta they caught the famous Magic Bus which followed the hippy trail overland from Amsterdam to India.
“We had two drivers, one from Germany and one from Turkey, so we could travel through the night, she explained.
“The world was a very different place back then and everyone slept on the bus. If the drivers did sleep they hired gunmen to guard the bus so it was very difficult to get off and have a pee because you would be surrounded by these tribesmen with ancient rifles.
“We got stuck in Afghanistan for a month because the Khyber pass was all snowed up and the bus very conveniently broke down for a week in Istanbul where we met the driver’s family.
“I wasn’t scared. our drivers had done it all before and as a young, white westerner you always think everything will work out alright.”
After spending time in India and visiting Nepal they decided to make their way home using public transport so Jill could visit remote weaving sheds and learn about textile methods and designs..
They were involved in an earthquake in the SWAT Valley, street riots in Istanbul, a police state in India, strictly enforced curfews in Pakistan and there were times when she was the only women on the streets.
By the time they arrived back in Bristol she was in a poor physical state and the relationship with the boyfriend had also come to the end of the road.
Trip made me realise how small the planet is
“More than anything else it made me realise that the planet is not infinite,”said Jill who has stood for the Green Party in past local elections.
“I tracked our journey on a map and when I looked at it on the globe I realised that in that time I had travelled around one third of the circumference of the world overland.
“It gave me an understanding that planet has a limited capacity for us humans and that knowledge shaped my political understanding around the environment.”
For a time she lived with a friend on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side of New York where she took classes at the New York Feminist Art Institute, and became involved in the Pentagon Action Group, taking part in an famous protest when women encircled the building, put gravestones in the lawn and wove yarn across the entrances.
She travelled between peace movements by Greyhound bus and was featured in Private Eye after getting involved in a project by radical feminist artist Judy Chicago who made dinner plates representing women’s vaginas.
When she returned to England she rented a cottage in the West Country where she joined the Guild of Somerset Craftsmen so she could teach weaving, took a course at Bristol University, manned telephone helplines for women and sometimes offered her home as an escape to victims of domestic violence.
I gave up my flat to live at Greenham Common
“I started going to Greenham Common for one week a month,”said Jill.
“They were living in communal benders – hazel poles bent together like a spider’s web with a taup or big sheet of plastic thrown over the top..
“It was very uncomfortable and you had to sleep in your boots because the bailiffs were constantly evicting us.
“ They used to come with this big machine that we called the Muncher. It was like a giant bin lorry and they would just drag the tents across the floor with women sleeping in them and throw everything in the Muncher.
“You would see women crawling out of just before they were thrown in The Muncher and they would lose all their belongings.”
They were also attacked by vigilantes who harassed the women so Jill decided to buy a truck so she could drive away when the Muncher came and found a Leyland EA with military Q registration number plates while goat-sitting in the Forest of Dean.
“It already had loads of plywood and shelves,” said Jill who spent a year taking driving lessons and converting the van before finally giving up her flat for good.
“I parked it outside my last house in Exeter so had electricity for a drill. It had loads of shelves so I just used what was there. I hate woodwork but I put in some insulation, made a high up bed, put a second hand woodburner in, cut a hole in roof and that was it. It was all very basic.”
Greenham Common, which dominated the headlines in the 1980s, was her main base for around 12 years and she was part of a core group who stayed and took part in actions such as the famous protest when they danced on the silos on New Years Eve and cut through miles of fencing.
She is the custodian of the Blue Gate Diaries kept by the Greenham women, who lived in primitive conditions at each gate, to document their stay. The women have agreed the diaries stay private until the last one dies.
“I did go in through the fence many times but I did not do anything really brave, like some of the women who would occupy watchtowers, go into offices or spray paint buildings,” she said.
“They did not bother arresting you because there were so many of us they were running out of courts. They would pick you up and put you in the van and then dump you at a gate miles from where you wanted to be so you would have to walk back.”
Busking around Europe solo wasn’t easy
During weekends and school holidays women would come from all over the country to swell the numbers so she would take this opportunity to spread the word, visit friends or take seasonal work at places such as at the Man of Ross farm.
“I did sign on for a couple of winters in Newbury but I did not want to so I taught myself to play a medieval instrument called the dulcimer so I could go busking,” she explained.
Over the years she developed market day circuits in the UK, Ireland, France and Spain, going into towns the night before the market for a recce and then choosing a good spot for the following day when she would get up early and “go to work”.
“There were very few women buskers and I was very much on my own so you would get loads of hassle from blokes trying to steal your money or touch you up on the street,” she said.
“But you learn how to deal with it very quickly.”
Scared? I was ferocious
I’m about to ask her was she scared when she tells me that she constantly had different variations of the same conversation in different languages with people she came across.
“The conversations would always go, and this would be everywhere I went, ‘So you are on your own then?’,” she says shaking her head.
“ Then it would be ‘Oooh. You haven’t got a man?’ ‘Oooh You haven’t got a dog’.
‘Oooh how on earth do you manage? Oooh aren’t you scared. Ooh don’t you think you should have a dog?”
Yet she admits she was nervous at times and always ensured her living space was windowless and very secure so she could sleep soundly at night.
Occasionally her instincts would tell her to move on and she had hairy moments like the time in Ireland she was woken by a group of gunmen who told her she could not stay at that spot because some shooting was about to take place.
Once she was woken in the Yorkshire moors by the van rocking, only to find out it was a herd longhorn cattle using it as a scratch post.
But she soon found that most people who tried to bother her were more frightened by the threat of a bucket of urine over the head than the axe she used to chop wood.
“Once you understand how male violence works you realise they want you to live in fear so I became fearless,” said Jill who trained and taught self-defence during one of her jobs in a women’s centre.
“It’s an almost invisible psychology so if they hassled me I would just be ferocious.
“Part of self defence is to develop peripheral vision and to tune into your instincts. It’s a high adrenaline way of life because you are constantly on high alert.
“Somebody once said to me ‘the traffic is noisy here, why aren’t you wearing ear plugs?’ I couldn’t wear ear plugs because I need to know what is going on outside.”
Living in a van
And of course there were the everyday practicalities to think about. Finding somewhere to park, making sure you have enough water, keeping yourself and the van clean.
Unlike the lady in the film, Jill is a stickler for cleanliness.
“ When was busking, I took a fairly professional approach to it, she said.
“ I might dress a bit odd to catch the eye but I was always clean and tidy.”
She would have baths at friends’ homes or go to local swimming pools and depending on where she was, she would either visit laundrettes or find springs like St Anthony’s well near Littledean.
“I would have a fire and a big cauldron to boil up the water,” she said. “ I would rinse the clothes in the river and stream, hang them on the bushes to dry and practise the Ducimer.
“ It would take all day but it’s a lovely way to be in the woods.”
Before giving up her home to go on the road she took a course in advanced diesel engine repairs so she could fix any problems with the van because as well as being financially crippling, you have nowhere to live if you put your home in a garage.
Although not vegetarian, she avoided meat because she did not have a fridge and eat leftover fruit and veg cheap from the markets at the end of the day.
She has never been interested in watching television, hardly went to the cinema but has filled her spare time with art galleries, books, yoga, camp-fire debates with other travellers and walking under the stars.
It helps to have a tidy nature and not like “stuff”
Occasionally partners have travelled with her for short periods of time but she has never wanted to share the cosy, clean spaces she created with anybody full-time.
“ It’s just my nature,” she said. “When I was young I used to share a bedroom with my sister and it used to drive me nuts because she was untidy
“Tidiness is often used as an insult but to me it’s a more efficient way of living. I think untidy people are chaotic.
“One of the things I like about being in a truck is that you can’t end up with loads of stuff because you don’t have room for it. If you are on a site year in year out you end up with piles of rotting tat.
“But because I moved on a lot on the busking circuit I had to pack down as quickly as possible. It’s the same with the evictions, you need to be able to pile the stuff in and go.
“Lots of people my age have an accumulation of material positions but I just couldn’t bear it. “.
After Greenham Common she developed a pattern of working six months until January and then went travelling for six months, calling agencies days before returning so she there was work waiting when she stepped off the ferry.
It could be anything from agency care work to full-time jobs such as gypsy liaison officer, warden or housing officer. The first van died while she was taking a community arts course in Manchester and she bought a Mercedes.
Although she drove in aid convoys taking essentials to women and children caught up in the Bosnian war, she shunned Glastonbury style convoys.
“I was way too separatist to hang around with that lot” said Jill who is proud to call herself a radical feminist.
Travellers are different to tourists
Eventually an inheritance allowed her to upgrade to a large ten year-old, 7.5 tonne Daf which only had 10,000 miles on the clock and was easier to drive and she joined the camping and caravaning club to find cheap sites.
Travelling in the van is very different to being a tourist and she cites an example of when she was travelling through the Atlas mountains in Morocco and befriended a group of Berber weavers washing wool in the streams.
She was invited for a meal around the campfire and then back to their village and was the only Westerner there when thousands of horsemen descended for a week of celebrations.
“Because I have my own home I can invite them in so it is of a more mutual thing,” she explains.
“This to me is one of the keynotes of being a traveller rather than an international jetsetter. I am not homeless. I have a home.
“I can invite people to dinner and offer them spiced coffee. That exchange is really different. “
I don’t want to do this any more
As she approached retirement age she tired of bringing the van abroad and as her mother aged she gravitated towards Wales and the Forest of Dean.
When her mother died leaving her an unexpected inheritance she decided it was time to get a house because growing old in a van on her own would be impractical.
“The last winter in the truck I thought I don’t want to do this any more,” she said. “ I emptied my truck and moved in with a friend in London for three months.
“Part of the migratory thing for me is that in the winter I would rather be in a city because there’s things going on. Winter in a truck can be deeply boring and it’s hard work because there’s never enough solar power.
“I don’t have, kids, I don’t have anyone to look after me. I have always been self responsible and independent so I had to prepare for getting older than I am now.
“ I have worked in nursing homes and in sheltered housing and I have seen how it goes. I am very pragmatic about it.”
Moving into a house
During the autumn Equinox of 2013, , Jill moved into a tiny, hillside terrace overlooking the woodlands in the Forest of Dean which is instantly recognisable as her home by the willow fence and note on the front door saying to go around the back because she’s probably in the garden where she grows her own food.
It’s taken some adjusting. She still likes to go away when the mood takes her but is more inclined to use buses, trains and even planes when she goes to see the many friends she has made over the years.
She refuses to drink water from the tap, choosing instead to collect it from a local spring. But lack of noise was the hardest thing to live with when she moved in
“I cannot hear what’s going on outside,” she explained.
“Initially I was very unsettled and completely overwhelmed by the adjustment, the whole responsibility of it.
“At night I would go into the garden and sit looking at the sky thinking what am I going to do. Why am I inside this fence.
“I am getting older so I’m not not as restless as I used to be but sometimes in the winter it gets me and I have to go for night walks. Only to Littledean Hill but it’s a lovely view.
“It’s something I’ve always done because it somehow feels safer at night.”
Unlike many people in their 60s who look back with regret, she happy about the way her life has gone and proud she managed to campaign for her beliefs.
Being mobile meant she could follow the work all over the country and that allowed her to maintain a roof over her head for most of her life,
She says she wasn’t expecting the inheritance that allowed her to buy a small house so that didn’t figure in her decision to stay on the road.
“I know I have made a few mistakes but that’s all part of being human,” she said.
“Yes I have been in some scary situations and taken risks, but a life without risk is not worth living.”
And, yes, she has seen Lady in a Van at her local cinema. And she enjoyed it.