Wednesday, February 28, 2024

I gave up renting in London to live nomadically – it’s dramatically enriched my life | Lydia Swinscoe

Must read

I’m typing this while sitting at a very nifty, handmade foldaway desk in a compact, one-bedroom flat in Kentish Town. The cosy apartment’s dark wooden floorboards are overlaid with thick, Bhutanese woven rugs depicting tigers and mandalas. When I make toast on weekends, miniature, primary-coloured Tibetan prayer flags, strung above the toaster, dance in the rising heat. Bedroom bookshelves are stacked with intriguing travel guides, musings on Buddhism, and titles extolling the benefits of cold-water swimming; a good thing since Hampstead Heath’s Kenwood ladies’ pond is just a 35-minute walk away. Parliament Hill Lido is even closer.

This feelgood flat has been the ideal winter bolthole, and a place I felt immediately at home when I moved in three months ago. But come spring I’ll be living somewhere entirely different, in a completely new flat or house, most likely in a new borough, perhaps a new city, maybe even a new country. These are the exciting unknowns in my transient life.

Three years ago, I quit having a fixed place to live in, leaving my home for various locales across the UK and beyond. The notes in my phone reveal that, to date, I’ve slept in 117 beds, in locations ranging from the Scottish Highlands and coastal Dorset to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and the avant-garde Georgian capital of Tbilisi, all while holding down a full-time job.

But for most of that time, I’ve stayed in London, the city I’ve called home since moving here 19 years ago as a timid yet eager student. Flashforward to today and my nomadic lifestyle has allowed me to live in seven inner-London boroughs over the last 36 months, granting my curious nature permission to run wild. I’ve seen more of London in the past three years than in the previous 10 combined, simply because I’ve been able to get acquainted with local hotspots, stroll down streets I’ve never seen before, and discover some of the best restaurants that non-residents might usually miss (Lewisham’s Everest Curry King FYI). Knowing I’ll only be in a certain spot for a limited time forces me to really make the most of a place.

There have been downsides, of course: an incontinent-cat-sitting episode in Stamford Hill, riding out the 2022 heatwave in a two-windowed Clapton flat, and a break-in attempt at the Hackney house I was looking after alone. But the positives have far outweighed the negatives, and by quitting having a permanent base to live, I’ve been able to travel more frequently since I only pay for the place I’m living in at the time, be that in the UK or elsewhere.

I find my short-term lodgings by word of mouth, through friends of friends mostly. Occasionally, I’ve found a place on Airbnb, a few times I’ve crashed with lovers or friends, sometimes I’ve checked in to a hotel, and as I mentioned above, I’ve also experimented with pet-sitting. And yet, miraculously, I’ve not once found myself without a place to live.

My last permanent base was a wonderfully light-filled rental flat, with great neighbours, mere footsteps from east London’s leafy Victoria Park. It made taking the initial step into nomadism the hardest.

I began by selling off items I knew I wouldn’t need, and as a lifelong furnished renter, I didn’t have many of the possessions most people accumulate over the years. I’ve never owned a bed, for instance, and the same goes for sofas and other large items of furniture. Books swiftly got whittled down to just the few I knew I’d read again – M Train by Patti Smith, everything by Deborah Levy, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential – while surplus clothing was donated to the local charity shop.

Unlike my late grandad, who kept every item going, I’ve never been a hoarder, so after the initial declutter it was fairly simple to condense everything I owned into just a few boxes. Filled with personal mementoes, photographs, love letters, kitchen essentials and a few pairs of Alexander McQueen heels picked up from sample sales over the years, I checked the packages that made up my life into a friend’s garage, where they have remained. I haven’t looked back since.

Living nomadically, mostly out of a 65-litre backpack, I’ve become deeply aware of just how much “stuff” we collect but don’t need. Everywhere – on TV, online, pasted across billboards, on the sides of buses – we’re bombarded with materialistic messages luring us to buy the latest gadgets, kitchen appliances (read: air fryers), home furnishings, newest fashion trends and miracle beauty products. I’m convinced it’s a trap.

The endless, inescapable cycle of coveting items to buy, but being cash-rich and time-poor in order to buy them, doesn’t feel like living well. I’ve realised that I don’t want to spend weekends mending gutters or painting bedroom walls, or buying chopping boards and coffee machines, mattresses and pizza ovens. And so I borrow those items instead, at the same time that I’m borrowing people’s homes to live in. In return, flats and houses don’t sit empty, and the friends or acquaintances I rent from get their rent or mortgage paid while they’re out of town.

Perhaps it won’t work for ever; maybe I’ll start to crave a place of my own. But for now, give me nomadic living over a sedentary existence any day.

Latest article