Young People at music festival near converted bus
Photographer Tom Hunter travelled through Europe in a converted bus (Image credit: Tom Hunter)

The early 1990s saw a dramatic increase in the popularity of nomadic, van-living lifestyles coinciding with a growth in free, rave parties across the south of England. We spoke to two people who experienced that cultural movement first-hand.

Back in 1995 photographer Tom Hunter lived in a way that most people only ever dream of. For months at a time, he drove a converted bus across Europe with his friends and held free parties across the continent, in convoy with other nomads from the UK.

“In places like the Czech Republic, other young people were blown away,” Tom, 59, says. “They couldn’t believe that we’d driven all the way from England and that these parties we were holding were completely free.”

This had all started years before, in the late 1980s. Across the south of England a ‘second summer of love’ (named after the first in the 1960s, San Francisco hippie scene) had kicked into gear.

Swathes of young people travelled between illegal outdoor parties in converted vans and buses and enjoyed the new dance music imported from America. It was, in short, an enormous cultural movement which, according to writer Alon Shulman, “altered the course of modern, global youth culture forever.”

‘I wanted the freedom of visiting these places and meeting people while still having a space to welcome them into’

Tom, who in 1991 had started a photography course at the London College of Printing, found himself at the centre of the movement.

Having grown up in Dorset and moved to London at 15, he was then living in Hackney, East London, in a squat – a community of artists and travellers living in converted vehicles and derelict buildings. These communities would be integral to the organisation of free parties in-and-around London.

“We were squatting in lots of buildings,” Tom says. “So, we were able to organise lots of parties in warehouses, bingo halls and theatres. They just kept on getting bigger and bigger.”

Meanwhile, over in Wiltshire, south-west England, 20-year-old Roo Jeffery bought and converted a 1970 VW campervan. She took the van throughout the UK both to free raves in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire and to stunning locations like Snowdonia, in North Wales. Roo suffered from chronic claustrophobia. Therefore, journeying to outdoor parties served as a perfect, enriching alternative to the crowded, commercial clubs that she was unable to visit.

“I wanted the freedom of visiting these raves and meeting people while still having a space to welcome them into,” Roo, now 53, says. “I decked out the van beautifully inside: the two front seats turned into a bed, there was a dyed-carpet hung from ceiling, an Indian rug on the floor and fluorescent paintings on the walls. It was a really lovely space.”

Roo’s campervan, 1992 (Image Credit: Roo Jeffery)

In 1994 the UK government passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act which restricted free outdoor parties. Young people at the time, like Roo, realised that they’d have to go to Europe if they were to keep the second summer of love going.

“In ’95, my boyfriend-at-the-time and I thought we’d go to Amsterdam,” Roo says, “but the van blew up on the way there. It happened at Maidenhead: that was as far as we got! A friend of mine was a mechanic and he offered me £2,000 for the van. Nowadays, I wish I’d said no, kept it and tried to mend it myself but I sold it to him instead.”

Tom on the other hand got luckier than Roo. He joined convoys of other nomads in Europe. His main source of income, at the time was a vegetarian café called Le Crowbar which he ran at free parties, aboard his converted bus.

It was an unpredictable way-of-living which often-meant engine breakdowns and financial hardship: often, there’d be confrontations with police.

‘We felt like heroes, part of our own story’

“We’d dismantle the parties on Monday morning,” Tom says. “Then, everyone would split up, and you’d hopefully see each other next weekend, or maybe two weeks later. In between that, say, in Austria: we’d drive up to the mountains, find a lake and hang out for five or six days, parked up, having fires, drinks and meeting local people. Hopefully, every weekend you’d make just enough money. If a festival didn’t work out, or got shut down by police then you’d have to live on bread or cheese for a week, if you were lucky.”

The Crowbar Café, 1995. (Image credit: Tom Hunter)

Despite these challenges, Tom’s journeys through Europe strengthened both his photography skills and his friendships in Hackney.

As the fire of the second summer-of-love petered out toward 1997, so too did those constant trips to Europe, but nevertheless Tom’s experiences seemed testament to the self-actualising power of travelling in a bus, coach or van alongside your friends.

“When we got back, we’d put on big squat parties in Hackney and I would project the photos I’d taken of us on the double decker, out in Europe.” Tom says. “It created a real buzz: we felt like heroes, part of our own story. All-in-all, the photos gave us encouragement to keep on doing what we were doing.”

More information about Tom Hunter’s photography can be found at www.tomhunter.org.