We meet the St Albans family who are volunteering around the world
PUBLISHED: 08:56 11 February 2020
Ever dreamed of upping sticks and heading off on an adventure? Meet the St Albans family of five (and two cats) on an ongoing volunteering trip around Europe in a caravan
Most of us have dreamed at some time about swapping our everyday lives for some kind of travel adventure. For many, it means waiting until retirement, but one St Albans couple have taken the plunge and are currently working their way around Europe with their three children and two cats.
I caught up with the Binedells during their stay in Bremen, Germany - mum Karen and dad Warren who originally hail from Cape Town; and children Sebastian, 16, Aiden, 15, and Ella, 12. In April last year, the family sailed to Portugal to start a year-long volunteering adventure aroungd Europe, a trip they had planned for 18 months.
'Warren and I realised we wanted more for ourselves and our family,' explained Karen, a former teaching assistant. 'We were working six-day weeks and only getting one day together as a family. We were tired of rushing, stressing, working non-stop and having nothing to show for it at the end of the month.
'We wanted the kids to know that there is so much more to life, to see the world, meet people from different walks of life, and realise that it's OK to take the path less travelled. And we wanted them to learn life skills, and experience what it is like to do something for someone else without expecting anything in return.'
The Binedells made their life-changing decision after two years of living in rural Portugal, struggling to make ends meet by running a small café. Nobody earned much, but they were impressed by the way that family and friends were always top priority. So they headed back to Britain to purchase a caravan and prepare for an adventure.
Before Portugal, the family had lived in Surrey, Warren commuting daily to Welham Green in Hertfordshire where he worked as warehouse manager for Atlas of London removals. So this time, they headed straight to Herts to avoid Warren's commute. They bought a caravan and set up temporary home near St Albans where the children enrolled in school - Sebastian and Aiden at Verulam; and Ella at Aboyne Lodge and then St Albans Girls' School. Karen meanwhile spent most of her time planning the trip. But did the kids share their parents' enthusiasm?
'Not all,' she admitted. 'To start with, only Sebastian was keen, but as time went by and preparations began, Ella got on board and by the time we left, Aiden had agreed to go for one year, but one year only! I'm pleased to say that all that has now changed and despite still missing their friends back home, all three kids are actively involved in planning our travels.
'We'd told their schools that we would be moving abroad and we enrolled them all in an online college - Wolsey Hall Oxford. So they've been able to continue with the UK curriculum, supported by different tutors for each subject, and in May Sebastian will take his GCSEs.'
Enrolling the children with Wolsey Hall and paying for trip insurance were two costs they could settle up front. But beyond that, budgeting was a major challenge, given the number of variables involved. Karen sourced all the family's volunteer projects through the Workaway programme, which meant that a pitch for the caravan and meals were included in return for help with projects and odd jobs. Karen and Warren also secured a modest monthly income with travel articles for The Sunday Times and Practical Caravan.
Monthly expenses now include two direct debits for car tax and Netflix, fuel, toiletries, money for outings and sightseeing, and occasional clothing for the kids - an average of £250 per month for all five.
'We either eat with our hosts or they reimburse our food shopping bills,' explains Karen. 'Around 60 to 80 euros a week.'
In order to ease the children into their new way of life, the Binedells undertook their first three projects with friends in Portugal before moving on to Spain and France. They intended to go to Italy, Slovenia and beyond, but while working in France, several Italian projects were cancelled, so they turned north to Belgium instead.
'You do need to be flexible,' says Karen with feeling. 'Every project is different, but on a typical day, Warren and I get up and make our bed - which doubles as the living room - have breakfast and start work around 8am. The kids get up once we're out of the caravan and usually start their day with a couple of hours of school work.
'After lunch they help with our projects. Our hosts often give them jobs of their own such as cleaning stables, training Shetland ponies, and taking care of goats and chickens. In Utrecht in the Netherlands they were on leaf duty at a huge property. They've also helped with taking down and replacing a farmhouse roof, and in eight months have learnt to drive a tractor and forklift, and operate a pneumatic drill, a cement mixer and a petrol strimmer!'
Three children in one house can be challenging enough, and Karen insists that disagreements in a caravan are resolved quickly. You can't just run to your bedroom and slam the door. Fortunately most arguments are over Xbox or WiFi - the usual subjects for sibling teen rivalry. Meanwhile, cats Stuey and Tilly are perfectly content to have the 'safe space' of their travelling home.
'As soon as we arrive at a new destination, we allow them to explore,' says Karen. 'The only thing Stuey hates is driving through tunnels - he meows all the way through!'
Karen posts regularly on Instagram and on her online travel blog, and can't remember any negative comments from browsers. Quite the opposite, in fact. But how does she balance the teenagers' privacy with the family's widespread presence on social media?
'We are completely open and honest about everything. The kids know that social media has played a part in supporting this journey and are happy to share glimpses of our travels and approve posts before I share them. But under no circumstances am I allowed to tag them in anything I post!'
The trip was due to finish in April this year but now the Binedells will keep the project going while also heading off for another big adventure in October. During a 20-day trek to Everest Base Camp, they hope to raise £1m for four charities supporting terminally ill children, mental health, environmental issues, and healthcare and education in Nepal.
'We just need to find a million people to donate £1 each,' laughs Karen. 'We're delighted to have been invited back to clients in Portugal to caretake their farm and animals for the whole of 2020. It will be the perfect place to train for Everest and for Sebastian to study for his exams. Beyond that, who knows?'
Ask about highlights and each member of the family has their own view. Learning to surf in Portugal was a highlight for both boys. For Ella, it was Camping du Boise de St Hilaire in rural France. Karen particularly enjoyed a family cycling trip around Utrecht, a tour of the Christmas market in Bremen, and watching Ella learn bodyboarding, despite insisting she hated the ocean. But Warren speaks for all of them when he says simply, 'My highlight is all the friendships we have made since we left England.'
As family bonding trips go, this one is certainly going to take some beating.