How we escaped suburbia by embracing exchange and life on the road

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Emma and Shawn's motorhome in sunny Scotland

Visual artist Emma Moody-Smith shares the story of how she and her partner Shawn have spent the past 9 years downshifting, swapping suburban England for life in a motorhome and, crucially, embracing exchange. Here she offers insight and advice to others looking to do the same.

My partner Shawn and I made a life-changing decision in 2009 when we sold our house in suburban England and brought a motorhome in which to travel and explore new places.

Between then and now we have toured the coast of Britain and a little bit of Europe, spent nearly four years on the Isle of Mull on the west coast of Scotland, and, since March 2016, been volunteering on a smallholding in rural Portugal renovating our host’s house and looking after her land and animals. During our time here in Portugal we have also completed other house-sitting assignments in other parts of Portugal, France and Belgium.

Emma and Shawn

Emma and Shawn. Credit: Emma Moody-Smith

Our decision to downshift had grown from a chance conversation previously when we had agreed there must be more to life than just working to pay the mortgage and bills off each month. We had a gorgeous house but was always tired with little extra means for treats and socialising. There had to be more to life than this.

Lunch stop in Austria in the winter of 2016. Credit: Emma Moody-Smith

Professionally we have many years experience between us working in horticulture, retail, tourism and the food industry, in various roles from assistants to management. In 2009 I qualified with a fine art degree. Shawn and I love making things, be it artwork, sewing, knitting, building gates, doors and
other structures, DIY, land maintenance, and will take on different creative projects either individually or together.

We will say to one another “we gonna have to think outside the box here” when opportunities and challenges come our way. We have been introduced to the concepts of permaculture, minimalism, living in small spaces and the slow movement. We are keen to support sustainability and take better care of our environment. We are eating a more plant-based diet.

Grape picking in Portugal in the summer of 2016. Credit: Emma Moody-Smith

We were recently asked if we have any words of advice for others who might be considering embarking on a similar journey. We still feel we are beginners at this but from our own experiences here are just a few things to say:

Only buy what you truly need, and think about using only what you really need to use.

Recycle, re-use, mend and repair where possible.

Think about what you actually consume. For example, what food do you really need for each week? There are only two of us which means seven meals, seven breakfasts, seven evening ‘snacks’.

Think about an employment exchange beyond money, such as working for food, accommodation, a place to stay. Our current host provides us with fleeces for our spinning project, rum and chocolate (from the UK!) a social life, a shared garden…

Bringing the sheep up for shearing in the summer of 2016. Credit: Emma Moody-Smith

We have found that living in a smaller space means less housework and responsibilities, and less ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. It is such a relief. We do have to think about our incoming and outgoing electricity, heating, water and waste, and we value and appreciate these things so much more than just being able to turn on a switch or a tap.

It is important that people take action at what level is comfortable for them. We have found this change of lifestyle has enabled us to be more independent, and a bit more in charge of our own choices, but we don’t have children, a mortgage or a boss. Be brave and do your research. For most times it is a calculated risk what we do, and we may decide not to live this way for ever.

What are your luxury items that you could not give up? My answer would be chocolate and an ironing board. Yes, an ironing board, even though we live in a small space. I may not iron very often but there is nothing like a clean pressed pair of pyjamas as you put them on, of course, electricity provided by solar or wind power if possible! The key thing is, don’t beat yourself up with what you can and cannot do. I’m still striving to give up my books for electronic ones…

Existing in a small space has taught us to think about what a home is and what a home can be. Our tour of Britain was hectic in comparison to now and we choose to travel much slower these days, taking our time. Our journey has opened our eyes a bit more to other cultures and people’s lifestyles and we are a lot less judgemental than we used to be.

So where do we feel we are heading next? We are asked this question a lot and our initial answer usually is that we don’t know!

At the moment we are staying in our host’s house in Portugal which is up for sale. We are maintaining the house and looking after her land and animals. This will be a long or short stay depending on the sale of the house. One of the rooms we have changed into a studio as I would like to do some sewing, knitting and making of some kind. Last year Shawn and I brought a spinning wheel and we are learning about all things to do with wool.

Our ‘Ashford Traveller’ spinning wheel. Credit: Emma Moody-Smith

Our first skein of Portuguese wool. Credit: Emma Moody-Smith

In the future we will need somewhere to stay when our host’s house is sold and we are open to where this next location is and what that stay will consist of.

Long-term we imagine we would like a small property of our own again. We like the idea of a self-build eco-friendly tiny house, perhaps using recycled materials, with space for a studio or workshop attached. We are aware of the tiny house movement in America. Is there a tiny house movement happening in the United Kingdom?

We continue to ask ourselves what skills, services and products can we provide for others, and how can we maintain a level of self-sustainability, and find ways to meet our financial and legal obligations.

Finally, here are some websites that we like:

And here are some house-sitting and volunteering websites we like. Three of them we
have profiles on:

Thanks to Emma and Shawn for sharing their downshifting story. If you’re curious about how it might work for you, you can learn more about in our dedicated downshifting topic introduction here.

About the author

Visual artist Emma Moody-Smith’s practice explores the process of making and asks why it is that we make things, keep things and covet things. Examples of her work can be found on her website. Alongside her partner Shawn, she has spent the last 9 years travelling and working on an exchange basis across the UK and Europe, after making a conscious and life-changing decision to downshift to a motorhome.