Is it spring yet? Oh, I hope so!

Like most of you, we’ve found this last winter a bit wearing. It’s not been too cold here – nothing like last year when the whole water system froze solid for a week. But it has been stormy, costing us five trees damaged or down in the wood. This is apart from the one damaged by a neighbour whilst taking a heavy hand to his own trees. And it has been wet! Rain, followed by more rain. Then fog and fine drizzle (“mizzle” in north-east parlance), with some heavy rain interspersed with showers. As a result we are surrounded by a sea of mud. Except for the overflowing pond of course. How we are longing for spring!

We’ve been watching this anxiously for several reasons. Firstly the damage to local infrastructure, especially the roads, is considerable. Most roads, small rural winding ones and supposedly main highways, are pitted with holes. The ground is saturated and the water runs off the surrounding land with nowhere to go except across the surface. Our little road, nicely resurfaced just over a year ago, is virtually impassable at one end now.

The loss of trees and undergrowth allowed water to sweep away a lot of the top layer and the heavy farm machinery has ripped large and deep holes in places. There are several areas where only a tractor can pass safely as the damage stretches over most of the road. Apparently it took over twenty years to get this half of the road repaired (the other half was not done but is in better shape now). I have little hope we will get any help with this given the desperate state of many other areas. We have one way in and out and drive very, very carefully at the moment.

Our other concern was getting some more trees planted in time. Apparently its okay to plant up to the end of March but once spring comes new saplings will struggle. With everything waterlogged we were not sure we’d be able to benefit from the clearing done in a dry few days last month. Still, you have to take a leap of faith sometimes so when Fergus our lovely tree man introduced us to Donal, a nurseryman, we decided to forge ahead. It took a bit of driving around to find the nursery but it was certainly worth it and we selected seven trees and some raspberry canes to start our new orchard. We were not willing to spray weed killer over the land, standard practise it seems. Instead Donal will return and rotavate round the trees before sowing “domestic” grass. Then it’s down to us to keep it trimmed.

March 1st is the official start of spring and the weather decided to celebrate this fact by giving us our first snow for a year. We were a bit worried about the baby trees but they’ve been raised outside and are just fine. We celebrated the arrival of spring by lighting the fire in the snug and staying in. I had a beautiful jigsaw for Christmas, the “Rainbow of Birds”, which kept me happily amused for several weeks.

I had some great news last week. The Northern Tibetan Spaniel Club are running a stand at Crufts this year and Scot Lemon asked if he could sell my book, “Puppy Brain”. Of course I said “Yes please!” I can’t sign them, obviously, but each copy comes with a signed picture (two of the dogs, not me) and a bookmark. If you are around on Thursday do drop in. There are some great items on sale and Scot is a fountain of knowledge for this lovely if tricky breed.

Finally I have a request to make. For a number of years I have worked with the remarkable Alex Lewczuk on a number of broadcasts both in Teesside and for Siren FM in Lincoln. The university hold the FM license and have decided to cancel it, effectively closing a valued educational resource and a popular community radio station. If you can would you add your name to the petition to save Siren Radio? It costs nothing and would be very much appreciated.

Thank you for reading and I hope to see you all again in a couple of weeks.
Keep warm, drive safely and here’s to spring!

To the wood, to the wood!

Despite the continuing atrocious weather a lot of these last few weeks have been spent outdoors. Firstly, we needed to do something about the wood pile. It’s a blessing in these cold winter months but it needs careful handling. Originally almost ten feet high and about six feet deep, we’ve burrowed into it for the past few years. Finally the big blue tarp slid off and the rain – oh so much rain – got in. A lot of the wood was soaked and a surprising amount began to sprout a range of fungi. As our stove is in urgent need of a service, this made lighting the fire increasingly difficult.

After several failed experiments we finally managed to haul the cover back up onto a large area and fastened it over the side wall. Not perfect but an improvement. We are hoping to get a proper lean-to built in the spring ready for the fresh wood from the fallen trees. In the meantime we play “wood Jenga” several times a week, using a rake to dislodge logs without bringing the whole lot down on us. Well, it adds some excitement to the winter days.

I’ve come to the conclusion woodmen are like buses. You wait a year for one and then three come along all at once. The redoubtable Fergus arrived last month to make the road margins and back of the wood safe, producing a huge pile of timber to be split and stored in the autumn. He also gave some good advice about tree nurseries and the planting we have in mind, but this depends on clearing more of the land. As usual, finding someone to do the job has been difficult, especially as a lot of it is close to being waterlogged. Well, let’s be honest, much of it is waterlogged. There’s also the problem of access to the bit at the rear with no easy way to get a digger up there.

I decided to try John, the man who cleared some of the wood for us in the first year. He also set up the impressive stone “monument” in the wood. Well, he’s down there now, clearing the centre ready for a new planting of colourful trees in the next few weeks. He also carved out and gravelled a ramp to the back so now a mini (1.5 ton!) digger and the mower can travel up safely. He’s coming back in the summer to work on our pond, something that is now much more urgent following all the rain.

After the brutal “trimming” of the land over the road there was nothing to stop the opposite pond overflowing and it has flooded across the road. A lot of excess water is now trapped and turning stagnant on our border and our little pond is flowing back over part of our wood. This has serious consequences for the infrastructure as, much to our surprise, the cable layers for the broadband network turned up to lay the fibre connections. This is a national roll-out and we were told it would be soon – in 2025.

Alas, it is not possible to lay the cables due to the water and so they left again. The very helpful Alan Mead suggested they would maybe put up poles in the future. We are still without a landline and rely on our patchy mobile signals which is not very reassuring in the case of emergencies. We must wait and see.

Fergus also managed to put us in touch with Donal who will clear the back and plant a small orchard of mixed fruit trees for us. We will be going to the nursery later this week to talk to an expert and select our trees, which Donal will collect for us. There was apparently an orchard there before but it was gone by the time we moved in. Now the land has lain fallow for some years and should be ready for replanting. There has been some water ingress in the Majestic again, flowing down the slope from the neighbouring fields. Donal will use the excess soil to build a ramp across the back which should reduce, if not remove, this problem.

We are not expecting to get much of the fruit from our trees, especially in the early years. I expect the birds will have quite a lot, though we are putting in a crab apple just for them. The trees will also encourage and feed bees and if we add a nut tree we may even get some squirrels.

So the wood is much lighter now and when we add the new trees will look a lot less bare. Happily there’s some expert advice on hand to make sure we raise happy, healthy trees with space to grow and flourish. I know we will probably not be around to see it all in its glory but others will enjoy them. And the wildlife in the wood will always have a good amount of food, undergrowth and shelter through the years as we will leave a fair proportion of it semi-wild. It’s a very small area but every tree matters and we are determined to make it a vibrant and living space.

Thank you for reading. Here’s to the end of winter and a brighter spring for us all.

I hope to see you in two weeks time.

Memories are made of fish (and other things)

This last week we passed four years since the UK officially exited the EU and like many people our lives were never going to be the same again. Unlike a lot of people, we took a rather more drastic turn, leaving our home of almost forty years behind us. There have been a lot of changes in our lives. The seemingly endless struggle with the infrastructure, for example. The weather, which is generally milder but certainly wetter than England. Many things are more expensive in Ireland though lots, especially the food, are of a better quality than in the UK. On the plus side we have space, off-road parking and an abundance of birds plants and wildlife.

So where does the fish come in? We were surprised to find the fish over here is simply stupendous. We have a “local” fishmonger who can produce a full side of salmon caught only a few days ago. All his produce is excellent and caught off the West Coast. It also comes with a generous handful of samphire grass, added gratis by Mr Daly who also has (amongst others) excellent cod, mussels and mackerel and makes very good fish cakes. Last week we indulged in some sea bass, a fish we know well from our travels in the past, and it brought back memories of the last time we were in Greece. As we don’t fly, the journey was part of the holiday and we set off on the tiny local train from Saltburn, heading for the Ionian Islands, at stupid-o’clock in the morning. The excellent rail service got us to Lausanne for the night and then on to Ancona where we were catching the ferry to Patras.

Italian trains are very fast and very comfortable – if you travel first class. This is not something we do normally but earlier experiences led us to this extravagance. Second class carriages are crowded and even reserving (and paying for) a seat means nothing to many passengers. I swear the corridors are awash with nuns, all dragging babies and children with them – orphan “bambinis” – and the refusal to give up your place leads to much pushing and angry muttering from those around. The nuns try but rarely succeed in their attempts to infiltrate first class and it is possible to sit quietly and admire the scenery. Every hour or so a steward comes round and places something on the table – a bottle of water, some biscuits, a newspaper, in Italian of course.

We caught our ferry the next day after a riotous evening in Ancona that would fill another blog on its own. We finally arrived on Kefalonia, at the wrong end of the island for our accommodation. There were no taxis. We were saved from a very long and hot walk by the fabulous Batistatou Sisters. I know they sound like a dodgy singing group but they have a car rental business on the dock and dug up a Fiat 650 convertible for us. We called her Penelope and despite her size she coped admirably with the roads and hills of the island. She even took us to Zakynthos on the local ferry so we could visit old friends there.

There was a lot about parts of Kefalonia we didn’t like, especially our first room in Skala. I cannot recommend Skala in any way at all. It was overhyped, dirty, crowded and noisy yet managed to have nothing to do. On returning from Zakynthos we moved up the coast to the Green Bay Bungalows (not bungalows but much nicer then Skala!) and explored the top end of the island. Here we had lunch one day, seated on a walkway across the water. Shoals of fish flitted through the water below us including sea bass. The freshest, most beautiful sea bass I’ve ever tasted.

Our sea bass came from a company in Galway, discovered by Jacqui and now a mainstay in our shopping. Every Tuesday their web site, “Eat more Fish” lists what’s available for delivery on Thursday or Friday. Along with sea bass and bream we’ve had monkfish, cod, line-caught squid, oysters, smoked roe, kippers and even lobsters for a special occasion. Everything is packed in ice and driven to the door, still frozen. There are some problems with deliveries up here but this is one company that has never let us down. We always have a selection of fish in the freezer and it is always stunningly good.

The sea bass evoked happy memories of our Greek trip and also visits to Bern in Switzerland. Here we sat by the Aare river at the “Schwellenmatteli” and watched them pull our lunch out – fresh perch from the glacial waters. We have done some epic journeys over the years and are fortunate to have those memories to share. We’re probably not up to the 1,000 kilometre drives any more, nor the rigours of some of the places we’ve stayed (Mme Cockroach anyone? The beds that tried to eat us at the Golden Lion?) Despite this the knowledge and the images stay with us, and the food still evokes many smiles.

This year we plan to explore a bit more of our new home, starting with the area of Cork where my Irish ancestors came from. Jacqui has found a place by the sea that will accept our three dogs and we are really looking forward to it. It’s a chance to see something new, maybe meet new people and rest a bit too. So here’s to fish – and happy memories.

Thank you for reading and I hope to see you back in a couple of weeks.

Well, some upgrades are good, if annoying

In this networked and computer driven society one of the most annoying thing is the compulsory upgrade. After years of using IT, way back to the dial-up days, I have always been of the opinion that if something needs constant upgrading it doesn’t work properly anyway. This rather rough rule of thumb applies to many things in life, I’ve found. Upgrade your car to something bigger and more flashy! Get a new phone too. It’s a new season so don’t wear old clothes, upgrade your whole wardrobe. Well, new and upgraded often doesn’t mean better, just more complicated (and expensive). Especially where computers are concerned.

I’ve been nursing several older desktop PCs that run Windows 7 for a number of years. Now the last one is finally about to die, hence the lack of a blog last week. Part of my problem is software. As I am dyslexic and dyspraxic it takes me a long time to master a program. I am still using Word 97 for my books (I can hear you laughing from here) and newer Windows systems run much newer versions. I find them so confusing I can barely string a sentence together. They have too many menus, everything is muddled up and the functions I rely on are hidden away – or “improved” to the point they are not of any use any more. I was wondering if I’d be able to write anything ever again. Then help came from an unexpected quarter.

After several weeks of delays I finally went back to the opticians to collect my new glasses. A friendly assistant recognized me (“You’re the writer lady!”) and we had a chat about computers. I am still wary of the many “repair and refurbish” shops around town after the total destruction of Jacqui’s desktop and the wiping of my hard drives by another “expert”. James offered a personal recommendation and on Saturday we set off to find Vassilly’s shop. He was everything we’d been promised – helpful, attentive and, with a minimum of mansplaining, I left the shop with a refurbished laptop. It has the dreaded Windows 10, of course, but I have disabled the worst features (Cortana, I’m talking about you). I also have a book coming that will help me wrestle it into submission. I shall keep you posted.

Clean water at last!
One upgrade that is not at all bad in the water system. We finally were booked in and a technician arrived a couple of weeks ago to install and make good the whole lot. We now have a new softener, UV light filter, a carbon trap, two particle filters and a reverse osmosis system. The shed now looks a bit like the bridge of the starship “Enterprise” at night with the array of lights, all water or solar based. The reverse osmosis system is annoying but vital as it removes the excess nitrates. It fits – just – under the sink and dispenses drinking water from a tiny new tap. It also takes up the whole of the cupboard so we are now looking for more storage space. Not a bad upgrade but definitely annoying, especially as it cost a great deal.

Enter the Wildlife
As winter approaches the rampant undergrowth is dying back again and we are getting more sightings on the trail cameras. Mabel, the little tuxedo cat, is convinced she owns the wood and the garden though I notice she is absent when possible rivals appear. A second cat, a tabby this time, has been enjoying the facilities too. We have no objections to this as it will keep away any rats. We did have a rat caught on camera last week so, hey, the more cats the better I think. After the reckless destruction of the trees and habitat across the road we were very worried for our pine marten. It was a happy moment when I saw him in the wood again looking healthy and suitably predatory.

There’s a lot of wildlife around at present, some a bit closer to home than we’d like. I was woken by some loud scrabbling in the skirting boards a few weeks ago, a rather alarming event. Investigation tracked the source to the boiler cupboard where some field mice obviously hoped to make a warm home for the winter. I will not use poisons in the house or grounds as they are a danger to all animals and birds so I have several highly effective traps. So far we’ve caught one live mouse I released without injury onto the verges outside. Since then we’ve had at least one dead mouse a day too. As they’re not poisoned I put them into the wood for larger animals. I don’t like killing anything but we can’t have mice running round the house and at least they help feed others. We are checking around the back for mice-sized holes to make sure there’s not a second wave.

Annoying Cynthia
Our soakaway continues to be a good upgrade if still rather annoying. It’s messy around the edges and we will probably get bricks or tiles in the spring to neaten it up. One of the dogs, Cynthia, objects to the gravel, picking her way across it like a duchess in a cesspit. This is despite the nice, smooth paving slabs laid across it to make a bridge for her sensitive little paws. The other two don’t care and trot over it happily to reach the grass. And it does do its job with no more flooding now Robbie has fixed the gutters so well.

Well, I will be spending the next week or so taming my new tech and working in the wood to get it smoothed out and more ordered. It has been very wet and quite stormy here though it’s not as cold as the North East coast. We are sheltered from the worst of the winds a lot of the time too and there’s been little flooding near us. I think we’ve been rather lucky, looking at the damage done in other parts of the country and the UK.

So, thank you for your patience and I will be back in a couple of weeks when we should be mouse free.
By the way, if anyone’s looking for a little Christmas present, let me just say “Puppy Brain” is currently on sale at Amazon, half price. And with my new, hopefully reliable, upgraded tech I will be venturing into second book territory very soon.

Thank you for reading and keep safe.

It’s a bit slow going at the moment

Well, it looks as if autumn is here despite the almost total lack of summer this year.  We had some fine days though these seemed to coincide with doctor or other unmovable appointments, of course.  Still, we are making some progress though it seems a bit slow going at the moment.  Some of this is the weather – can’t do much outside in the pouring rain.  Some is down to lack of workmen.  There are a number of specialist jobs still outstanding and we can’t always find anyone able or willing to do them.  Sometimes it’s just the system – and people not listening when we say just get on with it!

Our big problem at the moment is the well water.  The excesses of the “summer” mean the water table is high – only 6 feet deep according to professional measurements.  The same day I was merrily writing the last episode there was a lavish application of what smelt like pig slurry in the nearby fields.  Two hours later the heavens opened and it poured for several days.  The next morning our water was yellow.  We took samples and rushed them to the lab and began to use only bottled water for drinking and cooking.  The first results confirmed our cautious approach showing a high level of e-coli. 

We are still waiting for the chemical analysis but are trying to get a full system installed.  Like everything else, it’s a bit slow going at present.  Regardless of the recent analysis we want every possible precaution in place.  After all, we have already had high nitrates in the water and the limescale is off the charts.  Living in a rural area, readings change from one day to the next.  We want to safeguard our water, and do it now.  This however is proving difficult. 

The company we want to use won’t come out or discuss options until all the analysis is in.  It’s a bit like trying to get past our previous doctor’s receptionist.  She won’t (or can’t) answer the questions we have and won’t put us through to someone who can.  First we have to jump through her particular hoops.  We don’t care what the report says, we want everything so this never happens again.  Not so much a bit slow going, more a total impasse.  Meanwhile we are struggling on with bottled water. 

The strange weather patterns seem to have disrupted some of the wildlife.  The geese, for example, are either totally absent or arriving in much larger numbers.  We had a plague of flies in the hot spell and then nothing for several weeks.  Clearing off a windowsill out the back I discovered a strange insect dead in one of the jugs.  It was a fair size, about 3 centimetres, with wings, a hard casing and serrated underside.  Anyone know what it might be?

Jacqui has been working on the Majestic, to make it a usable workshop and also to make room for the new water system when it finally arrives.  It’s been a lot slower than we hoped, for health reasons as well as problems finding reliable workmen for the heavy stuff.  This week she finished the first movable workbench and we can start clearing the centre.  There will be a lot of space with the shelves she’s put up using the roof battens as recycled material and it will be ready for wiring soon. Exciting times!

She also unpacked the metal shelf unit she’d ordered – but this isn’t what she ordered at all.  Alas, it arrived months ago so we are stuck with it.  The frame is flimsy aluminium and it falls apart when stood up so she’s bending the fittings to lock them in.  The instructions are just pictures and so badly illustrated they make little sense.  I hate the picture leaflets – I can’t understand them at all, probably as I’m dyspraxic.  These are so useless they don’t even list the number of parts and the only written section is about using cut-proof gloves.  This, I feel, demonstrates their manufacturing values – rough edges included in the price.

We have a sort of routine now.  Even if we are working in different places we meet for coffee in the middle of the day.  We’ve taken to choosing a TV series and having one episode a day and have gone through a number of favourites, old and new.  Just recently the ever helpful sky box suggested “Schitts Creek” so we tried one episode out of curiosity.  It is a delight!  For once the sky box got it right and we are enjoying it more as the series goes on.  I saw the adverts when it was first broadcast and thought, “Ugh, you’re joking!”  Well, I was totally wrong.

One trip into town this week was to the optician for me.  My glasses get a hard time and I knew I probably needed a new prescription.  I was right and now I should wear glasses when driving, which I was expecting and do anyway.  The visit was very enjoyable, much to my surprise, and my eyes are healthy.  I did the hearing test too whilst waiting for all the forms to be filled in.  It seems my hearing is also very good, especially considering my age.  I can hear almost up to bats squeaking and I put that down to rarely going to live music unless it features an orchestra.  After once trying a rock concert I had to leave after half an hour.  I was a wimp when young but I’m feeling the benefit now.

One of the assistants recognised me as “the writer lady” and asked about some books.  Several others joined in and I handed out bookmarks and talked a bit about the books, both Alex Hastings and Puppy Brain.  It was nice to talk about writing and to find people were still interested in the books.  We also got a message from a friend from the UK.  She sent a screenshot of “The Moth Man” on holiday.  She wanted to know if there were any more and immediately went on line to get a copy of “Smoke and Adders”.  That was a lovely moment.

So, it’s a bit slow going at the moment but we are still moving on.  It rains a lot but the spectacular skies are wonderful this time of year.  And just occasionally there’s a rainbow.

Thank you for reading, take care and I hope to see you again in a few weeks.

Love our home but hate the infrastructure

Pondering over the last month or so over last night’s dinner we both agreed we love our home.  When we were first considering the move we had a short list of what we would like.  A very short list actually.  We wanted off road parking, one of the growing problems in Saltburn.  In fact it had become a bit of a nightmare with the flood of visitors, not just at weekends but every day.  The other thing we really wanted was a bit of garden, mainly for the dogs.  We had a little yard, less than 12 feet square, so whatever the weather we were out with them, several times a day.  Combine the parking problem with the rising crowds and it was not always a nice place to be, for us or the dogs.  So, a very short list, and we got both our wishes.

Being a good distance from the nearest town we have no problem with other cars (though there are occasional tractors driving very fast).  The front is gravelled and big enough for several cars, work vans and even, on one memorable occasion, a road stripping machine.  We have a decent sized garden too though it’s been dug up and churned over a bit recently.  Jacqui has it in hand however and is already planning how to make it a comfortable and restful space.  We also have rather more land than we bargained for, with the back area and, of course, the wood.  Both are somewhat challenging as they’ve been fallow (read overgrown) for some years.  Still with the help of friends and occasional mechanical intervention we are moving on.  A lot of work is needed to consolidate what’s been achieved but the more we do the easier it becomes.

One aspect of our almost-idyllic rural life is, however, the almost complete lack of infrastructure.  A sizable chunk of the back garden is taken up by the gas tank (no mains here) and solar panels.  We will hopefully be adding more later on as the mains is still extremely unreliable.  We got the wiring fixed so the fuses didn’t blow several times a day after a mere 8 months.  Then earlier this year we were granted our own transponder box so the lights no longer dim if you put on the kettle.  Alas, there are still sudden power cuts, sometimes for several minutes, sometimes for almost a day. 

The latest set of outages is the reason this blog is late (for which I apologise).  On Tuesday the power went on and off every few seconds for at least a minute.  We’ve taken to unplugging the computers, having already lost 3 to sudden cuts, but this lot toasted the wifi extenders and seems to have removed all settings from the router.  I’m not sure about the dongles either.  We are now waiting for over 120 euros worth of replacement equipment, paid for by us of course.  We’ve also invested in a lorry load of surge protectors, both plug boards and single plugs.  We are just grateful the new fridge/freezer wasn’t damaged this time!

To finish this moan about the infrastructure, we are still struggling with the soak-away systems.  One seems to be blocked completely and when it rains the water from the gutter bubbles over onto the path.  It also sets up a loud burping sound in the bathroom sink and other drains, which is a bit alarming.  We have several things we can try but otherwise it is back to John Gleeson to set it right before winter.

Despite this we do love our home.  It is quiet, private and we’re getting it the way we want now.  We’ve room to work, room to sit around the table and eat and a lovely snug for relaxing.  The dogs are very settled here too.  As one visitor said, “You seem much more chilled now.  Even the dogs seem more relaxed”. We are, I hope, putting the worst of the last few years behind us and looking more to the future.  Jacqui is developing new skills, seemingly every week.  Whether building the Majestic into a workshop or crocheting a wide range of objects, she’s going for it. 

And I’m writing again after the awful year just gone.  The collapse of Impress, my publishers, was a real blow.  It was made worse by the fight over copyright and the imminent threats to pulp the books.  Thanks to support from the other Impress writers we wrested our rights back.  Thanks to wonderful friends Helen and Noel my books were saved.  And thanks to Jacqui’s quiet but persistent support I finished my first new story last week.  I’ve returned to the Levels, to look at some of the characters in more detail.  First up is Iris, wife of Derek Johns and mother to Newt.  How did such a smart, capable woman come to marry the despicable Derek?  Well, “Iris’s Story” has the answer.  I intend it to be followed shortly by similar tales for the redoubtable Ada Mallory and the slightly mysterious Tom Monarch.

I’m looking at e-books for these at first, maybe all 3 in one as they are short (8,000 word) stories.  What do you think?

So, provided we can stop our infrastructure exploding in the future we will keep on doing, making and loving our little Irish home.

Thank you for your patience, thank you for reading and I hope to be back on time next fortnight!

I’m just up and plodding again, if not running but cannot add pictures this time.

It’s been one heck of an August

Firstly I offer you my deep and profound apologies for the late posting.  It’s just that we’ve had one heck of an August so far.  August has always been a bit of a problematic month for us in Ireland.  Regular readers may recall the plague of flies, repeated each year.  The heat and dust from building triggered Jacqui’s two heart attacks the first year we were here.  The weather is decidedly odd also, either blazingly hot or almost unrelenting rain.  This year it’s the latter.  Workmen either vanish without a word or turn up suddenly and unexpectedly.  We’re always glad to see them but may have problems fitting them around existing arrangements.  The one thing you don’t want to do is send them away – they may never come back!

Well, this year we had flies, workmen and visitors as well as the dreary weather.  Apart from the flies we were delighted to see them all, I have to say.  The first arrival was Noel, our friend from the north-east of England who runs the tiny charity “Lighthouse Family Matters”.  Do look it up – it is a wonderful example of micro-charity.  He’s off to Kenya again soon but wanted to see us and a bit more of his native land before he went.  He went travelling in his camper van for a few days in the middle, then came back and did a magnificent stint in the back garden.  In one day he cleared a path around the land so we can get at the weeds and tree branches.  He also brought over the first boxes of my books so ably rescued by Helen in the spring.  Thank you Helen!  And thank you Noel – you are a star!   

John, our drain man, arranged for Jim and his son Dan to do our soak-away two days after Noel left.  This meant the garden, that we’ve put a lot of work into, would have to be dug up and the grass was all crushed.  We’re not wildly house-proud but we were expecting my sister for her first visit and it didn’t make the best initial impression, alas. As an added bonus Cynthia, one of the dogs, decided she hates the gravel.  She refuses to walk on it to get to the remaining grass and it is beneath her dignity to wee on the concrete. My sister Rosemary and Jacqui put some flat paving stones down for her but she now refuses to use them either.  Difficult dogs!  Lovely, clever but very difficult sometimes.

Jim has finished the job we began on the path into the wood and it is now flat and clear.  When the grass grows back I can use the mower to keep it clear.  With all the rain and odd sunny intervals, the ground is already recovering and green shoots are reappearing.  We are planning the next stage of our land recovery, hopefully hiring a mini-mini digger for the back.  Jim’s machine came from a local man and I recognised him from just after our arrival.  I’d locked the digger in our garden for safety and challenged him when he came to collect it.  He was quite baffled by this until I pointed out I’d never met him and he could just be a chancer.  After rummaging around in his cab he produced a crumpled business card, I rang our builder to check the name and everyone was happy.

My sister’s visit was a delight.  It’s been at least three years since we’ve seen each other and I know she’s not much of a country girl so it was quite brave of her to make the journey.  She flew into Shannon Airport and we drove down to pick her up.  I’m not a fan of flying.  In fact I’ve not flown since 1985, when I was on a plane and all the engines stalled.  Shannon seems to be quite a nice airport however.  Small, efficient and not too expensive either.  It even has a WH Smith – my, they go where water wouldn’t.  

We had a leisurely few days together with trips into our nearest town and an excellent lunch on the shores of Lough Derg.  She was captivated by the decorated windows, most of them in pharmacies. It’s the middle of August – let’s do “Back to School!” Rosemary sent me some bee-bombs for my birthday and Jim had banked the earth up from the soak-away at the side of the wood.  An energetic morning of raking and stone removal left the top step ready for planting and we set the first seeds away together.  When it flowers it should be a beautiful sight and good for bees and butterflies.

On the way back from delivering Rosemary for her return flight we decided to have a very rare treat.  Maybe twice a year we have a burger and the nearest place is halfway down the motorway to Limerick.  I leapt to my feet clutching the money in my hot little hand as Jacqui went to park the car .  The service station was strangely empty with most franchises shuttered.  When I reached the counter ready for my order I was greeted by nervous looking child server who informed me they had “no beef”.  No beef at all – not a burger in the place.  What??  How the heck did that ever happen?  Like all the other people standing around looking very glum, I settled for chicken.  It was okay but nothing more.  Damn this heck of an August!

This year August has been less fly-ridden, possibly as the trees close to the house have gone.  Those insects left have, however, been more vicious than previously.  Whilst Jacqui is thankfully less attractive to them, they have had a good go at me.  I’ve over a dozen new bites by the end of each day and they are long lasting and very itchy.  Strangely, this morning I ventured out into the back room where they hide and nest overnight to find it empty.  They’ve gone, hopefully for another year, and good riddance too. 

The weather has been grim, we are very tired now and it has been a heck of an August.  On the plus side we’ve seen some of the most beautiful skies from the house.  Noel said our kitchen window was like the best TV in the world.  He loved the light around the house and wood, and we do too.  Here are a couple of “screen shots” from our kitchen to show what we mean.

I will be back in two weeks, hopefully after a calmer end to a heck of an August.  Hoping you are all well and the autumn is gentler for us all.

Thank you for reading.

Happy Easter but no news from Tipperary

Happy Easter to you all from a cold and rainy Tipperary. This is a bit of a non-news blog as I don’t have much in the way of news from Tipperary. A lot of things are in progress but I’ve decided I need a week off so I’m sending you all good wishes but no news yet.

Thank you and I hope to see you next week when I may have some news from Tipperary!

Happy St Patrick’s Day to you all!

Well, today is St Patrick’s Day, a day of parades, celebration and general cheer in Ireland, and many other countries. Evidence of the imminent party was clear around the country with flags flying, banners out and a host of events advertised. It is our fourth St Patrick’s here in Ireland and each one has been different. The first was under lockdown and the most festive we got was the consumption of a range of cakes, most of them layered in green icing. The next year was marked by the repeated firing of a shotgun just over the road as a local farmer roared around in a digger. A rather odd way to celebrate, we thought. Last year was quite a warm day and passed off peacefully. We wait to see what today brings, especially after the success of the Irish rugby team yesterday.

We’ve been out and about these last few weeks, the first time since we arrived. For our first trip we went to Cork. My Irish ancestors came from a small village in Co. Cork and I was curious to explore the area. Jacqui found a very nice looking holiday let that was willing to take all three dogs, once the host saw how small and cute looking they were. It was a bit of a journey as Cork, in common with much of rural Ireland, doesn’t seem to believe in signposts. Hooray for Google maps and eircodes – they saved the day.

The Bird House was everything Shelley, our host, had promised and more. It is warm, welcoming and decently equipped, with comfortable beds and a huge sofa the dogs loved. We set to and covered said sofa with the throws we’d packed and made ourselves at home. The (very big) TV had Netflix, a novelty for us, and there were books to read and a pool table and bar on the ground floor.

The weather was not quite as welcoming however and turned very windy and stormy overnight. As the forecast was more of the same for the next few days we decided to try a trip to Ballinhassig without delay, to see if I could find any trace of long-lost family. The route took us over the striking bridge to Kinsale, a town lauded as a beautiful place and gourmet heaven. We didn’t tarry however and probably the rain and wind didn’t show it at its best. As far as gourmet heaven went, we found a Lidl up the hill and picked up some supplies. Not quite gourmet but the food quality was extremely good, as it generally is with supermarket chains having contracts with local producers.

Ballinhassig itself is tiny. Like much of Ireland, the name refers to the village, the two parishes, church and civil, and a chunk of land around too. For a novice without detailed information this is extremely confusing. We stopped at the Gala Supermarket and An Post where a very kind woman put us in touch with Mary, the parish secretary. She had some very useful tips for us and after another Google map we were ready to set off. The few records I’d been able to find refer to my great grandfather’s baptism and this was apparently at the church in Goggin’s Hill. It was locked but we walked around the outside. The graveyard, always a good source of information, was relatively modern Mary said. Any relatives were probably in Ballinaboy, which was several miles away. That’s a trip for next time. We did find a famine memorial on the wall surrounding the church. My great grandfather would have been about eight or nine when he lived through that – a sobering thought.

Jacqui had a look around the Gala Supermarket before we left and discovered local cakes being delivered, still a bit warm from the oven. They were from “Louise’s Kitchen” and they are absolutely heavenly. It was getting cold and raining quite heavily but I wanted some pictures of the famous Fairy Garden, a playground across the road. I dropped into The Kabin, a café and coffee shop opposite and got Jacqui a coffee to keep her warm in the car whilst I ran around the little park. The coffee was as good as the cakes and the food I saw being served looked excellent too. The Kabin has a small library around the side walls as Ballinhassig is too small to have a branch of its own. I left a copy of “Puppy Brain” as a thank you for all the kindness shown by this little community.

The weather deteriorated further the next day and we stayed in, rested and indulged in some more Netflix. Despite the unseasonable storm we had a very happy stay and can recommend The Bird House to any visitor. Shelley is a lovely host and her two children loved the dogs, visiting a couple of times. We had booked this through Air BnB, our first encounter with this company and I sincerely hope it’s our last. The whole business was confusing and obstructive and they almost cancelled our stay despite the fact we’d paid in full and just wanted the address. No address without downloading the app apparently. Jacqui worked her way around this, thank goodness, and we saw we could use another site next time. Shelley was a marvelous host, it’s a lovely place and not well served by Air BnB at all in my opinion.

Now we are back, recovering from the journey and looking forward to spring and all that brings. Our mower is away being serviced but on its return we will start work on the land again. We can now walk right round the wood without breaking an ankle and are hoping to select our new trees for the cleared land next week. The trees in the orchard are starting to show signs of life with tiny buds on the branches. And last week I opened the back door to find a young frog on the step. Yes, it’s St Patrick’s Day and spring is finally on the way.

Thank you for reading, a happy St Patrick’s to you wherever you are, and I hope to see you again in a couple of weeks.

Thoughts on these past three years

From September to mid January we seem to have a lot of anniversaries. Some more recent than others, some shared and some more private, they all mark steps in our lives. Jacqui has a couple of medical anniversaries for example, having dodged the bullets of cancer and heart attacks in the past years. For some reason we always seem to move in December so our personal anniversary is December 1st, when we moved together to Somerset. Then we upped sticks for Cleveland five years later, also in December. Our most recent move was three years ago when we made the major shift across the Irish Sea. We arrived in fearful weather, exhausted and with most of our possessions locked down 10 kilometers away, on December 9th. This, all mingling with Christmas, New Year and Jacqui’s birthday.

A little birthday dinner

It is now almost three years since we moved into our present house, now well on the way to being transformed into a home. A lot has changed since then, not least as we are getting older and suddenly things that were easy become a bit more problematic. The pattern of our lives has changed over this time and I was struck this week by the tasks we undertake routinely that we never gave a thought to in England. We love the house and the land around it but it is demanding in time and effort. With no central services the responsibility for everything from fuel to rubbish collection rests on us. We have main electricity (most of the time) but nothing else. In fact as I write Storm Isha is gearing up around us and we’ve had three small power-outs already. So happy I have a laptop now!

As our land borders a public road we have a responsibility to maintain the trees and keep it clear and safe. Not that you’d think it was a proper road. Barely ten feet wide and covered in mud from all the farm traffic, even most locals think it is a farm track. Still, we take it seriously and our arborist, Fergus, called a while back to advise us. He was finally able to come back and do the work last week. This is the second big trim in our three years and there were six unsafe trees in all. Three were inside the wood – tall growing poplars that had developed quite a severe lean. They, along with the three along the roadside were removed properly and the wood is now piled up to start drying.

The next season’s logs

Fergus will be back in the autumn to split the logs and help us rebuild the woodpile. One of our new jobs is bringing in the wood for the fire, about twice a week at this time of year. Getting the logs down is interesting at present as the pile is still tall but we’ve used a lot of the front so we have to pull some down, preferably without causing an avalanche. It takes at least two cart loads to fill the bin in the front porch and then the wood is stacked in batches around the stove to remove any lingering damp. There is an old adage – logs keep you warm three times. Once when you cut them, once when you stack and bring them in and once when you burn them. It’s quite physical work but the warmth generated by the stove is wonderful. The snug certainly lives up to its name!

Cold January sunrise

We wanted to mark our first three years in Ireland and so last night had a few local friends over for dinner. It was a delight and such a pleasure to have good company and good food. I can’t claim any credit for the food – Jacqui did wonders in the kitchen over the previous week. We were actually quite glad it has been so wintery as the fridge soon filled up. The back room, a grooming room and utility space, is very cold in January. I put a thermometer on the bench and found it was the same temperature as the fridge so for the last couple of days we could keep items from the chiller cabinets out there quite safely. It was a delight to sit around the table, talking, sipping wine and nibbling on leftovers again.

Life is different here and there are a lot of things we need to do that other people did in England, especially in relation to essential services. Next week we have our scheduled bin and recycling run – a 32 kilometer round trip. I’m still looking for a routine that fits in with writing again and that is one of my main aims this year. Despite the challenges however we are happy here. It has been an adventurous and interesting three years despite the steep learning curve and occasional mishaps. As they say round here, “Every day is a school day”. Well, new challenges help keep you young. I only wish my joints knew that!

Thank you for reading. Keep safe and warm and I hope to be back in a couple of weeks.

Goodbye to 2023 and here’s to a better 2024

As the year grinds to an ending I offer an apology for my several absences this year. This last month especially I’ve not written anything though a fair amount has happened. Well, I say a heartfelt goodbye to 2023, which ends with a bang – several bangs actually. About six weeks ago I fell backwards off a ladder whilst cleaning out the gutters on the Majestic. I miscounted the steps down and as I was wearing bifocals (yes, time is definitely catching up with me) didn’t focus properly on the ground. The ladder came down too and Jacqui caught it before it could land on me though she got a bruised arm and it did dent my shin. It left me with a stiff right shoulder and neck and a bump on the head so I was a bit more cautious for a few days.

Not cautious enough I fear. The weather turned very cold at the start of December and one morning I was hurrying out to herd the dogs in first thing clad once more in red clogs and a yellow dressing gown. The ground was wet as it was raining so I didn’t expect any ice. Alas, one of the new paving stone was frozen, my foot went up like a cartoon character and I flew backwards onto the gravel of the new soak away. This time my left shoulder took the brunt of the fall, along with the base of my spine. I realized when I tried to stand up I’d hit my head again as I was very dizzy. Time had certainly caught up with me and we were heading for the doctor – and then the hospital.

Thus I ended 2023 with a bruised spine, a torn rotor cuff, sprains and strained ligaments and mild concussion. I can now sit down without flinching and have had a steroid injection in my shoulder. The neck whiplash is much better though my balance is still uncertain. So it is a stern goodbye to 2023 from me!

Overall this has been a rather dreary year as far as the weather is concerned. They say it rains every day in Ireland, though not in the same places. Well, since the 10 days in June when the sun shone it’s rained here every day. The land is completely waterlogged and unworkable and the high winds and winter storms have loosened some of the more fragile trees. A couple of smaller boundary trees have blown over, though fortunately into the wood rather than out onto the road or adjoining fields.

We are so glad the kitchen roof is repaired, even if it did cost 40% more than we were quoted. I must add a special thanks to Robbie who reset the guttering properly once they’d gone. The roof men left a big gap under the tiles that would have caught the wind and ripped it all off again. Fair to say I won’t be recommending them to anyone else. The whole of 2023 reminded me of a story by Ray Bradbury, set on Mars where it rains all year apart from one day. The callous children locked one girl in a cupboard on that day so she never saw the sun. We feel like that poor girl!

It’s not been all gloom however. We’ve had some lovely visitors, including my sister who ventured over the Irish Sea for the first time. We are part of a remote quiz group and have made some friends through that too. The Majestic is taking shape and now has some benches and shelves, mainly fashioned by Jacqui from the old roof battens. She’s also been crocheting up a storm making blankets, little bags and pots, boot socks and a range of multicoloured beanie hats. She even made a coffee cosy for my cafetiere. A local friend does some work for a dog rescue group and a lot of these items are destined for their fundraising stall.

We are looking forwards to the next year, hoping for some health improvements and maybe a bit more energy. The house is being knocked into shape gradually and in 2024 we would like to replace the small orchard that was on the land at the back. Nothing spectacular, just a dozen mixed trees for the birds and us initially. We’ve had sterling support from a number of local people, which helps make life so much easier. There are a couple of ways we hope to give something back in 2024.

Well, a short summing up at the end of a slightly strange year. I hope your 2023 was better and wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous 2024.

Thank you for reading and I promise I’ll try to get back to the 2-week format!

Tired, incoherent and still standing. Yeah!

Please forgive me if this episode is a bit incoherent – and maybe a little shorter than usual. It has been a very interesting few weeks culminating in our ‘flu and covid jabs on Friday. We had hoped that after a number of rounds our bodies would have become reconciled to the vaccines but we were sadly mistaken. Maybe it is the combination. Maybe it is the fact we are both fairly knackered at present. Whatever the reason, the effects have been rather grim. On the plus side, the worst impact is wearing off now and neither of us can risk getting really sick so I’m glad we have this protection for the winter. Short term pain but long term gain, I think.

A lot of the time prior to last Friday was taken up with the water system again. The Majestic was starting to flood once more, first from the back wall as excess water seeped in by the pipes. We’re not certain what caused this though the farmer who is the other user of the well was pulling a great deal of water and much of the ingress was from round his pipe and meter. Once this was resolved it all settled down again until I went in and found the inside of the shed dripping – literally. The cement eaves above the new system were soaked and we suspected the gutters were overflowing so out came the ladder and up I went.

Certainly the gutters were packed with leaf litter and there was a nasty bend just above the door preventing a proper flow. Using a small rake and my hands I cleared most of it. Hosing out the downspout cleared that and Jacqui fashioned some wooden blocks to realign the worst of the bend. Then just as we were finishing I missed a step on the way down and fell flat on my back onto the gravel drive. The ladder followed and I would probably be writing this with a broken leg if Jacqui hadn’t managed to grab it on the way down. She suffered a nasty bruise on her arm and I’ve a dent in my shin where it finally landed but it could have been so much worse.

Despite our best efforts however the shed was soaked again two days later. This time I had a good look at the system and found there was no water in the softener, just salt. Following the lines back I spotted a pipe that had blown off one of the tanks. The water pressure was building up and spraying over the wall, roof and almost half of the interior. Like many problems, the solution was stupidly simple once I spoke to the engineers. A small plastic clip had come loose so the pipe was not fastened properly. I found the clip several feet away under a bench, refastened it and so far all seems well. I do go out and check it several times a day however, just in case.

We’ve had a few drier days recently and the ground is not as sodden as it has been. The swans are happy with their pond, despite the smashed tree that is still lodged in the water. The winter birds are returning to the garden and eating everything they can find at the moment. They even consumed half an old fruit cake we’d forgotten about. As it had a considerable amount of brandy in it I wonder if they are weaving through the trees and waking up with tiny hangovers… Jacqui has done a clear out of the baking press and is mixing all the old dried fruit, nuts and cereals into tasty and nutritious bird cake as a healthier alternative!

Another uninvited “guest”

The colder weather has also encouraged more wildlife to chance their arm in the warm. There is a huge spider lurking next to the light switch in the Majestic. As I don’t want to get bitten, or to squash it, I’m now using a head torch on my hat when I go out in the dark. We’ve also had a colony of tiny field mice in one of the cupboards. They are coming in somewhere in the utility room and seem to be confined to the boiler cupboard. I don’t like killing anything but we can’t let mice get a foothold (paw hold?) in the house. I won’t use poisons as this can kill so many other animals and birds so I’ve some highly effective traps in there. So far I’ve caught 2 live and quite healthy specimens I took up the road and released. In addition I’ve disposed of 11 more in the wood, dead. They all vanish overnight so probably feed the feral/farm cats or the pine marten. I console myself with the thought it is the “circle of life”.

Up Kildangen!

It’s the end of the GGA sports season here and everyone takes the play-offs and championships very seriously. There are county flags flying from gates and posts as well as the colours of all the local teams. When we arrived we stayed in Puckane and their local team, Kildangan, had just won the Nationals. There were yellow and blue signs everywhere and one house even had a line of small rocks painted alternate colours along the boundary. This time some enterprising local has produced a minion bin dressed as a Kildangan hurler. I think they get the prize for best decoration this year.

Well, it’s been a rather chequered few weeks and I’m getting tired again now so will stop before I do become incoherent. Sending all good wishes to you and thank you for reading.

Take care everyone and see you in a couple of weeks.

Memories are made of this (thank you mother)

A memory from my younger years came back to me this week. I have a lot of memories from childhood, a mixed selection as we all do, but some shine bright – and some really should stay buried. Now, one of our dogs looks like a puppy but she’s actually 16 years old. At that age – not excessive for the breed but still getting on a bit – she needs a bit of cosseting. She has special food that she eats rather reluctantly so we boil up a chicken carcass, remove all bones and make a mousse to add flavour and interest. This takes several days of slow cooking so Jacqui decided to invest in a small, modern pressure cooker. I don’t have very good memories of pressure cookers.

My father was an avid gardener and he had an allotment he used to grow a large proportion of our food. Everything from carrots to soft fruit came from this small patch of Essex clay and at the weekend he would spend much of his time working there. We would await his return with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, wondering what we would be eating that week. Like all gardeners he planted and harvested seasonally which meant an abundance of produce for a short space of time. My mother was tasked with bottling and preserving all of this for winter, a mammoth task in some weeks. And the key to all this was the pressure cooker.

My most vivid memories come from one afternoon when she stood before the overflowing kitchen counters and began to mutter to herself. Usually I was enlisted to scrub and sort fruit and vegetables but this time she sent me out of the kitchen. I was only too glad to escape another tedious hour of “veg prep” and settled down with a book. Some 30 minutes later there was a terrifying explosion. My mother appeared at the doorway to my room looking grim though there was a glint of triumph in her eyes. The kitchen was an appalling mess. Water and vegetables spattered the walls and cupboard doors. There were pieces of metal embedded in the ceiling and one of the windows was broken. It’s supposed to be impossible, blowing up a pressure cooker. Well, I can tell you it’s not.

I’ve treated them with caution bordering on paranoia ever since so the experiments with our new, smaller and supposedly foolproof version were approached with some reluctance. All went well at first except it didn’t seal properly so – no steam, no cooking. The next time it sealed and began to steam. Erring on the side of caution we turned it down as low as possible and waited for the promised whistling that would indicate it was working. After about 5 minutes there was a loud bang, the weight jumped up and a rush of steam shot out of the top. Memories of my mother came back and I turned it off completely, pulled it off the heat and stepped a long way away. We were just laughing at the shock when it happened again. Pressure cookers – tools of the devil!

We’ve spent much of this week looking after our youngest dog. In January he developed a little pimple under one eye. We took him to the vet thinking it was a tick but it turned out to be a small wart. As it was so small and not troubling him we took their advice and left it but over the year it grew and he began to scratch at it. As it was obviously troubling him we arranged to have it removed. Our vets are excellent and they froze it off and cauterized the wound so he had no stitches. They even cut his nails while he was under (he hates having them done). For the past 6 days he’s been wearing a cone and remembering how quickly Cynthia got her collar off we’ve been watching him most of the time. Jacqui’s been brushing him, which he loves, and the collar comes off tomorrow. Don’t know who’ll be more relieved – him or us.

Swan – and spot the moorhen!

The weather has been awful of course. Whilst we missed the worst of the recent storms it has rained every day and the ground is saturated. Even the occasional bright days are punctuated with sudden fierce squalls, though lightened by rainbows. The kitchen roof is holding up well as is the new guttering and soak away system. We are very, very glad we got the water system fixed before this last run of weather as I’m sure it will have affected the water adversely too. One good thing is the revival of the winter pond across the road where waterfowl swim. We even have a pair of swans this year.

So there we are – hunkering down for the winter and glad we are warm and safe. Memories of the journey we took almost 3 years ago are strong this time of year. I never thought I’d still be writing this blog either!

Thank you for reading and I hope you are all keeping well and safe.