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The following is a personal view by an experienced ex-Mover.
How it Started
I guess for most people becoming a London Man & Van happens almost by accident. Maybe through redundancy or a previous business coming to an end, or maybe it just started by helping out a few friends at weekends and grew into something a bit more permanent.
Personally I'd reached a bit of a 'crossroads' and after sitting down and seriously trying to work out what on earth I was going to do next, the idea literally came out of the blue almost instantly.. buy a van and start doing removals... of course!
The Art of Small Removals
Like any occupation, the more you practice something the better you become. I remember my very first removal, I felt a bit nervous knocking on the door, and when I first saw the mountain of boxes, bin bags and other bits and pieces scattered all over the place I really wondered what I had let myself in for. It looked like it would take forever.
Fortunately though it was on the ground floor and my van was parked near the door. I set about loading up, I had no experience but I figured the boxes should go in first to use the van space as efficiently as possible and avoid the bagged stuff getting squashed if I had to break hard.
I remember being surprised how quickly I could get the loading done once I got seriously stuck into it. Before I knew it the van was loaded up and we were ready to go. The customer did a few last minute checks and off we went across London to the new address. Unloading was basically the same in reverse, although this time there were stairs involved so it took a bit longer. And that was essentially it really, I'd carried out my first removal.
From then on it was just a matter of honing the procedure. On arrival I would quickly assess what needed moving, what should go in first, what might be tricky, what doors should be propped open to provide a clear route, what potential hazards there were, whether it was worth bothering with the lift if there was one. And then I would attack the loading like a man on a mission. It was the only way.
One Man and his Van
Being my own boss, meeting interesting people, having a great physical workout (more on that below) and actually being paid a bit for it - the job had everything as far as I was concerned. It felt like freedom, or the closest you can get to it these days.
To say doing removals is physically demanding is an understatement though. I was already in reasonable shape when I started, but after the first couple of moves I was aching all over the next morning. It's not just the lifting, it's going up and down 4 or 5 flights of stairs and along lengthy corridors and pathways with the stuff too. I'd done some other challenging things in the past but this really was a full body workout unlike anything I'd experienced before.
As I worked alone I mainly concentrated on moves without furniture, from flat shares and furnished apartments. I made it clear in advance that I couldn't move large items of furniture unless the customer was willing and able to assist. This normally worked out fine but could occasionally cause problems if someone overestimated how much help they would be.
The job threw up difficult situations which often involved taking a calculated risk, that's just the nature of the work. It's true that it was hazardous at times, you just needed to be fully aware of everything going on around you and just learn to use your resources as best you could.
Anyway, I somehow managed to carry on without a serious accident or injury. Usually because of the way I assessed each situation, but on more than one occasion I was just lucky. I even took up Yoga to help keep my back and the rest of my body flexible, which I think ended up contributing greatly to my longevity as a Mover and proved the perfect antidote to the strain of constant lifting.
The Streets of London
It's not everyone's cup of tea driving around London, but I enjoyed that part of being a man and van too. While I wouldn't say I reached the same level of 'knowledge' as a top black cab driver, after a couple of years I wasn't that far behind. This was before SatNav's became widely available, or at least before I got one anyway, so with just a well used A-Z for reference I learnt my routes.
The mental jigsaw of London became fairly complete in my head and I could whizz around to any part of town surprisingly quickly. If you know where you are going, driving around London (with some music on) during the day is actually a pleasure.
Most people don't realise that once everyone is at work London traffic levels really calm down. Customers seemed to like the ride too, especially in summer time if we passed through central London and saw a few famous sights along the way. You get a great view from a van, and often it would be the first time they had travelled in London by anything other than a tube train or bus.
I often saw well known faces walking around and I loved the trips out to the countryside too, some really remote locations that were well off the radar. You could get to know a customer quite well by the end of a long trip like that and I heard many interesting stories. I think people are more willing to open up and be themselves when talking to a stranger they will most likely never see again.
Anyway, this all continued in much the same fashion during my time as a man and van. The years passed by quickly and I continued with my routine, still enjoying it and loving the freedom it gave me.
It wouldn't be right to say it was all roses though. Removals is high pressure work at times where any manner of difficult situations can suddenly pop up out of nowhere and really give you an unexpected reality check.
I always approached each new job with a professional attitude, particularly with regard to time keeping and reliability to hopefully minimize the chances of such occurrences, but misunderstandings can happen, some people can be difficult, personalities can clash, and people (including me) can have 'off days'.
In the beginning it hadn't bothered me too much, for every 'bad' move I had nine great ones and I just saw it as an occupational hazard. Towards the end though it did start taking a bit more of a toll, although I still enjoyed the majority of my work.
The End of the Road
I think everything has a natural lifespan whether it's an occupation or anything else, and people instinctively know when it's time to move on from something.
If it's a job they have loved doing for a long time they'll resist the feeling at first, putting it down to tiredness or 'needing a long holiday'. But once you know your heart is no longer in something it's just a matter of time. So as I approached the 10 year mark as a Mover there was a gradual realisation that this period of my life was now coming to an end.
Physically I felt like I could carry on for years like some Movers do, but I looked ahead and could see the longer I left it the harder it would be to adapt to something else. Sooner or later with this kind of work your body will start picking up injuries. I'd been lucky over the last 10 years but it was now time to get out, before I burnt out.
And so it was, I finally carried out my last removal. From Clapham to Rotherhithe. Just another move, much like the first, but with an acceptance that there would be no more.
And that was it, my time as a Mover was over, the time had finally come to hang up my removal gloves for good. I'd done some unusual and memorable stuff in my life before, but I will never forget or regret my time as a man and van.