A Home for Wonderland

This was the view from my van on the campsite the morning after I arrived in North Wales.

I recently went to North Wales for a long weekend and, on my way back, I drove past a disused Chapel for sale. When I got home I did a Google search and found a different Chapel for sale in the same area and that suddenly got my creative juices flowing. I could get funding, buy the Chapel, strip it and let the structure inform what is built inside. It could be a Wonderland that is weird and wonderful, built from recycled materials and not plastic-ey at all.

The porthole of my VW Caddy van

I have, inadvertently, tested this idea by converting my van, a tiny VW Caddy, which I bought last year, into a camper. I have poured my creativity into it. I stripped the interior, cut a hole in the roof and the side to install a skylight and a porthole, insulated it, laid the floor, made an extending bed with underneath storage, cut memory foam mattress into seat cushions and covered them in faux leather, cladded the sides and wallpapered and fitted plywood to the walls and ceiling, built cupboards, made and hung curtains, and there’s more to do but it’s nearly finished.

Finding out what works and what doesn’t by using the unfinished campervan.

I learn by doing and I go for weekends away in it so I can gauge what’s missing/superfluous or needs tweaking and, armed with this feedback, I come back to Brighton and make the changes. I have loved seeing this van transform over the months I have worked on it. It has kept me sane in times when life threw hard things at me. There’s something calming about repetitively measuring, cutting, sanding and screwing cladding to batons. Sometimes it’s been hard to work out how to do something because of the van’s curves, but there’re always ways and it just requires looking, or conversing, or doing and making mistakes.

Cutting a hole in the roof of the van for the skylight

Before working on this project I had never used a jigsaw or a drill and now I have no qualms about either – give me the metal roof of your van and I’ll happily, well, nervously cut a hole in it! This project has taught me that any problem can be solved in some way (although there may be compromises to be made) and I could not have seen the end result at the beginning, which is fortunate as that may have been overwhelming!

This van is like a tiny Tardis!

I think the principles I adopted for my van are important for Wonderland too. It would be great to find a disused building, preferably away from built up areas, that we (you, me and anyone who wants to get involved) can strip back to its shell and see how we can respond to the structure and location. I built my van bed from pallet wood I found and I’d like this ethos for Wonderland: recycling materials to build something weird and wonderful that will inspire a playful attitude and wonder without the use of plastics that are so common in children’s adventure playgrounds. Part of the fun in Wonderland will be the building of it and it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the skills to, say, cut wood; these can be taught (and you might discover you have a talent for it).


Could this Chapel house Wonderland?

This morning I went to The Good Business Club’s Pop Up Group Problem Solving Session and presented my challenge for Wonderland: do I do more testing for different user groups for Wonderland in different venues or do I go all out for finding a venue in a ‘build it and they will come’ type scenario? I shared my excitement over the Chapel in Wales and that the research I’ve done since then on buildings for sale in the Sussex countryside has shown it would be much cheaper to buy somewhere in Wales. I got some useful feedback and actions:

  • Start lean – spend time testing more before spending money.
  • Is the pop-up (testing) limiting?
  • Review who the customer is in Brighton vs. Wales
  • Can you access government money in Wales (to bring tourists to the area)?
  • Find properties and ask (locally/further afield) – focus on community building.
  • Understand customer (who/value they get) – where are they? Venue should be near them/accessible to them.
  • Spend more time on property search.
  • How much is refit of building?
  • Can you test “new locations” through partnerships (i.e Wilderness Wood)?
  • Connect with Nigel Berman (School of the Wild) – event 23rd May.
  • Run as a project for a set period of time – can you get funding (maybe during Brighton Fringe)?
  • Find investor who buys into dream.

The two actions I chose are to research the Brighton/Wales customer markets and whether there is government funding available in Wales.

If Wonderland was in Wales, people could visit for longer than a day – there could be residential long weekend and week retreats, filled with wonder, play, making connections, wonder walks, coaching, healthy food, fire, storytelling, planning hopes and dreams, making art and inspiration.

I think I may need to do more than two of the actions from the Problem Solving Session. I may need to test out some of my Wonder activities in woodland somewhere… What do you think?