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The following article is a personal perspective provided by an experienced Mover.
How it Started
I guess like me, most people become a London Man & Van 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 by demand into something 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!
One massive advantage I had going for me at the time was I lived in central London, possibly the flatshare capital of the world. A very high proportion of London residents rent, move home frequently and don't own their own transport. I figured if I could provide a reliable and competitively priced moving service that tapped into this market there should be no end of potential customers, and my gosh was I right.
I would just add the following caveat, this was back in the days when the Internet was really only just getting going and most businesses were still not on it. So I took a chance and purchased a new van, had a nice little website designed and very soon after going live my phone began ringing and jobs started coming in thick and fast.
I knew I'd made the right decision and it was the start of a journey that lasted 10 years and saw me covering almost the same mileage in my van as the distance to the moon.
The Art of Small Removals
Like any occupation, the more you practice something the better and faster 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 into a well oiled and efficient art. 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.
Once I was experienced I could usually carry out a small move with the driving included easily inside two hours. Knowing that allowed me to quote a fixed price which customers liked because it took some of the uncertainty away. Most just wanted it done as quickly as possible and were often happily astounded at the speed in which their move was completed.
One Man and his Van
Before I knew it I was driving all over London nearly every day, punctuated with long distance trips to almost any part of the country. It was great and I loved it.
I moved people to many other towns and cities, and also to stunning countryside locations and properties that I would never have otherwise seen. Every day was a different experience, and the variation always kept it interesting.
Being my own boss, getting out and about, meeting lots of interesting people, having a great physical workout (more on that below) and to top it all actually being paid 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. Like a modern day cowboy with a van instead of a horse.
For the first year, like most new business owners, I worked like a man possessed. I couldn't say no to a job. I ate out permanently, even breakfast was taken on the go. I had my favourite cafes located strategically around the capital, so wherever I finished a move I didn't have far to go to replenish my energy levels. I ate like two horses and it was mainly pasta or anything else with enough carbs and calories in it to keep me going on full steam ahead.
To say working in London removals is physically demanding is an understatement. I was already in reasonable shape when I started, but still after the first couple of moves I was aching all over the next morning. This quickly wore off as my body grew conditioned to it. 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 daily dose of full body workout quite unlike anything I'd experienced before.
Once I got going I relished it. I became a removals machine and liked to test my limits from time to time. I once carried a huge old fashioned TV (the type before flat screens) single-handedly down a tiny external spiral staircase (in the rain, at night) because there was literally no other way of getting it down. The customer accepted there was a chance I could drop it, there was nothing underneath that would be damaged if I did, so I took the risk on their behalf.
And then there would be the jumbo size moving boxes which had been completely filled with books and were almost impossible to move let alone pick up. It would be a choice of either emptying it and taking a few books at a time, which would add at least an hour to the move, or just sliding the thing very carefully down however many stairs, with me at the front trying desperately to stop it picking up momentum and taking us both on an unstoppable ride straight into the wall at the bottom. On a fixed rate and with another job scheduled in for straight afterwards, it had to be the sliding option.
As I worked alone I mainly concentrated on moves without furniture, from flatshares and furnished apartments. That is how I marketed myself and I also made it very 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.
One such time, the physics of load carrying dictated that the only way to get a three seater sofa around a particularly awkward and at times very narrow passage way, was by a combination of first carrying it upright on one end, followed by practically balancing it on my head. It was immediately clear the customer was not going to be able to assist much with this so the only way was to commission a suitable looking random passerby who was willing to help in exchange for a fiver, and together we somehow managed to do it successfully with no damage. That was the reality at times if you wanted to get the moves done.
The job threw difficult situations at me on a daily basis 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.
In my prime and at the height of my capabilities, my record number of small removals carried out in one day was seven. From about 7 in the morning until around 10 at night, all over London, on a hot day in the middle of summer. Some on the ground floor, some much higher, some with a lift, some without, some with customer help, some by myself.
By the end of that day I'd probably lost about half a stone in weight and looked like I was wearing a 'tie dye' t shirt, but it was mission accomplished and it felt awesome.
So it continued for the first year, working like crazy, all hours, seven days a week. And then one day I suddenly found out I couldn't keep going like that. Whether it was a virus or just exhaustion I'm not sure but I hit a brick wall and my energy just seemed to vanish. I lost my normally huge appetite and what pasta I did manage to force down me seemed to have no effect.
For about a week I ran on empty, but I still had to carry out all the jobs that were booked it. Cancellations and taking time off sick isn't really an option with removals work, unless you like dealing with extremely irate customers on the phone. People really are depending on you and I didn't want to let them down.
It was a tough couple of weeks to get through and it made me realise I had to change my approach and pace myself more if I wanted this to be a long term business, so I made the decision to seriously cut back on the number of jobs I took on and always left at least one day per week completely free.
It was hard at first saying no to potential jobs, as I'd become quite addicted to the buzz of moving someone, but I managed to find the right balance, got my energy levels back up, and continued on a more sustainable path.
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.
Looking back I probably should have taken on an assistant or two but at the time I just loved what I was doing and didn't want to become an office based manager dealing with the admin while they had all the fun!
The Streets of London
It's not everyone's cup of tea driving around London all day, 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. As I lived very central I could reach most areas usually within 30 minutes. 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, so I used to book my first job for about 10.30am, after a nice leisurely coffee and a couple of croissants at one of my favourite West End cafes. I sometimes felt like I was on holiday paid for by doing a couple of quick removals.
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 as well. Once I stopped to let an elderly gentleman in a smart suit walk across a zebra crossing near Elephant and Castle, and then realised it was one of London's most well known gangsters from the 60's.
Another time to my astonishment I actually saw two of the foremost members of the Royal family in a McDonald's restaurant just off Oxford Street at about 7am on a Sunday morning, with their very impressive looking security team waiting outside. Without wishing to divulge identities, it must have been a great night lads!
I loved the trips out to the countryside too. All over the south of England, sometimes to towns but often to remote rural 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 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 and part
of the job. 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 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 a poignant acceptance that there would be no more.
And that was it, my time as a Mover was over.
Things are now very different from when I started. Every Mover is of course on the Internet and it's a highly competitive environment. In some ways that's a positive development, but it can also cause confusion when trying to find a good removal company.
It doesn't matter what you do for a living though, we're all on the same roller coaster ride with the advance of technology rapidly changing everything, and no one really knowing what's around the corner.
With removals I can imagine one day it will be self driving vans, if that whole concept ever really does take off, but I'm guessing many people will still want the 'man' to go with it for help.
And as far as robots are concerned, I look forward to seeing one deal with all of the many different situations a real life Mover has to face each day. I guess it will happen eventually, but I doubt it will be anytime soon. Anyway, there will always be a lot of moving that needs doing in a place like London, whichever method people choose to do it with.
So my time was over. I'd clocked up almost 250,000 miles as a Mover with the same van I had bought at the very beginning of my journey. I'd looked after it and it had never once let me down. Like a loyal companion it had been with me through every experience, good and bad. I'd worked with it, eaten in it, slept in it, and it had come to feel like an extension of me.
But 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.