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New Year, same old problems

Firstly apologies for the late blog entry. This was due to another spell of drain trouble – “second verse, same as the first”. The fatberg broke down a little when I was removing it and some got washed back into the kitchen outlet. This meant all the washing up water flooded over the back patio, much to the delight of the dogs.

I managed to clear that pipe but there are still serious issues with the main drain, way beyond my abilities even if I hadn’t damaged my shoulders again. It’s a job for the (probably expensive) professionals I fear but there’s the same old problem. Everyone is frantically busy and still no one answers their phone! I have refrained from supplying any more detail or adding photographs in deference to my readers’ sensibilities. Enough to say my nice new overalls (which make me look like a Hobbit) are in need of a boil wash.

We are about to try switching the water pump over to the solar panels any day now. It has been cold, frosty on occasions, but bright and dry so the batteries are full and ready to go. I still have little confidence in the wiring to the final phase of the pump out in the little shed, the one section not redone by our excellent electrician. As a precaution I got some spare fuses, much to the bemusement of the lads in the electrical factors. They were obviously not used to an older, white-haired woman requesting C16 and B16 fuse blocks. I thought they were going to refuse to serve me for a minute so reassured them I knew what I was doing and how to fit them. Fingers crossed!

The electrical shop is just next door to the furniture store and we finally got the chance to pop in to look around. Those of you following the journey from the start may remember the idiot movers. Not content with damaging items and throwing it all into storage they left behind a lot of stuff. Some we can replace or do without. Some cannot be replaced – Jacqui’s sketch books, all packed and labelled are missing. That really hurts as it had the original photos and source material too.

At last, a decent work surface!

I have mourned my big desk – a table 3 foot by 5 foot I used for writing. I’ve tried to work in a small Ikea bench but couldn’t manage it. Well, the shop had another small dining table. Same size, a bit higher but reduced as it had been on display. It’s up in my new room and I’m writing again. Strange what a difference a piece of furniture makes but the surface area is so important. I can have research notes to hand and spread out the maps I need without everything cascading to the floor. That made my day.

It was a bit of a difficult week last week as a long awaited hospital visit was cancelled with a little notice. We wanted a medication review as we always read the leaflets and several of the pills Jacqui was on were supposed to be short term. Some have strong contraindications with others and some seem to be doubling up on one job. To our surprise we got an appointment to see our GP the next day and had a very constructive talk with him. Now we are hoping the main appointment, with the Cardiology professor, goes ahead.

A lot of out patient departments are closed still, due to Covid. I have my referral for physiotherapy but nothing else for a while – so no more drain clearing for me. Instead I am indulging in some gentle stretching exercises – across my lovely new jigsaw puzzle board. Be impressed – be very impressed.

750 devilish pieces

We are lucky enough to live next door to a horticulturist (yes, we do have one house within waving distance) and Des has been back and cleared the path around the wood. At last we can go right round without breaking an ankle. We can get at all the trees in the new part too. I did notice there are several other “paths” crossing the wood, animal tracks worn into the grass. The most trodden path runs back to the road side and I was startled to see something has dug up the fatberg and scattered it around. Well, if it doesn’t poison them it will provide some winter nourishment I guess. It’s all a sort of recycling.

Things are getting done now, still slowly but the end is in sight. Our joiner will fit the doors in the grooming room this week. We’ve arranged for the electrician to put the timer on the boiler and earth everything. No more scurrying through first thing to put the heating on! We really want the new sink working but there’s still a lot of plumbing to be done. The poor dogs have been brushed and mopped off but not had a proper bath for a whole year. I think even Charlie, who hates a bath, is getting a bit fed up. We’ve also got a new washbasin waiting (no more wobbly taps!) and a tap for the kitchen that won’t go off after 30 seconds. Luxury.

So that’s us. A slice of our Irish Life. Enjoy your mains drainage, water and gas! Oh, and your bin collection. Life is certainly different here.

Hoping you had a very Happy Christmas

Here we are, a year round and our first Christmas in our own house in Ireland. I don’t know about you but we had a very happy day. Last year Jacqui scrambled and juggled and somehow made a special time for us. This year we had a bit more time and a bit more space. There were still hiccups of course. An Post seems to have gone AWOL over the last few weeks and letters and parcels I posted up to 3 weeks ago have not arrived. The electricity is decidedly dodgy at the moment and we were cooking in Stygian gloom at one point last night. We’ve had no snow (hooray) but a goodly amount of rain (how unexpected).

This year we can be really festive!

Overall though I think we did quite well. The tree went up, complete with some of our favourite decorations. We followed Irish tradition and strung lights around the front gate (and are planning more for next year). Jacqui made a wonderful Christmas cake and I iced it. Last year she was worried we might not manage a cake and my callous reply was “We’ve got some extras – we could just ice a pudding”. It didn’t go down well. And dinner was a triumph of course.

This is what has destroyed the wood

We took the opportunity of a break in the rain to walk around the wood for the first time. We thought it would be two years before we could do that so felt very happy with our progress. It is still very rough and uneven underfoot and there are many little stumps now. A lot of them show evidence of the dreaded Ash DieBack – scars on the bark, broken rings and black patches inside. We’ve a big job on our hands but we will bring it all back to life, though with different types of trees.

I’ve made this a shorter read than usual as I have some important work to do. One of my presents yesterday was a 17-note kalimba and apparently I have until June to reach concert standard. It is a little brother for the (at least) 50 year old Indian Banjo but I may be a bit more successful with the kalimba. Firstly the Indian Banjo is right-handed so I struggle as a lefty. Secondly Charlie either sings along or hates it so much he won’t stop barking. I’m not sure which but he’s not taken against the kalimba so I may get to learn in peace. For those of you unfamiliar with these instruments, I’ve attached a couple of pictures below.

The 17 note Kalimba
The Indian Banjo

And I have a wonderful new jigsaw puzzle board. I had to leave my old one behind. It was very old and didn’t close properly so the bits slid around and fell out. A confession – I found it abandoned in the alleyway in Saltburn and it was a bit knackered even then. I’ve several lovely new puzzles I’ve not been able to try – a 1,000-piece jigsaw and three lively dogs do not mix. And the only surface big enough is the dining table that I can’t monopolise for days on end. So I will be very busy – and very happy until at least New Year.

I’m probably going to change these blog posts to every 2 weeks next year though if I have news of the new book or the TV project I’ll post that at once. I am also resuming the podcasts from the blogs in January and will post the link. Many, many thanks to you all for your support and friendship this past year. I have loved sharing the journey with you.

Wishing you all a very happy New Year.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose…

Life is a series of ups and downs and the best we can hope for is it evens out in the end. Take this last week for example. A lot has been going on and there were mixed results. Some we won, some we lost and at least one outcome managed to be both at the same time. It is no wonder we are just plain worn out!

After a lot of delays due to problems sourcing materials, illness and waiting for something else to be done first we suddenly found ourselves with three sets of workmen. They were all in different areas, which made dog wrangling a bit difficult, especially Charlie who went into full hyper-vigilant mode. After threatening him with lavender oil and finally applying a few drops on the back of his neck he subsided. The rest of the day he sulked on the couch, muttering occasionally and wiping his nose on the cushions. Meanwhile our long held plans were coming to fruition.

Solar panels at last!

Eddy arrived with two hefty lads and fitted our solar panels for the water supply. On the other side of the Majestic wall are the batteries, controls, fuses and dials. I’m not saying it is about as complex as the control panel for Concorde but it does probably rival a Sopwith Camel. He left the grid running to let the batteries charge up as it is very grey and overcast at present. Then on Saturday he came back and switched it over, leaving the mains feed as an emergency option.

Alas, this morning I woke to find we had no water and hurried out to the Majestic, a vision in Crocs and a yellow dressing gown. Hurrah for living in an isolated area! I saw the whole system was off and the fuse to the pump had blown so I had to call him out (after getting dressed). Eddy replaced the fuse with a new one and hopefully it will be fine now. Certainly we have water again though I keep checking the box indoors just in case. So – win, lose or both?

Hollowed out wood

Fergus our tree man returned to remove the dangerous tree in the wood and safeguard the oaks which he did with his usual skill. Then he and Tom set to and removed a lot of the dying ash trees. Many of the smaller saplings turned out to be Poplar, a non-native plant in Ireland. They self seed, grow extremely fast and have shallow roots so can destroy a wood if left. They were all removed and chipped ready for new planting. Now we can actually walk around the wood and get to the remaining trees. At the back is a whole ecosystem with dozens of birds’ nests that we are leaving. This is their home too. Next year we will begin replanting and try to make it healthy and beautiful. But the wood looks so bare and empty at the moment. Win, lose or both?

A proper room now!

The third step forwards was the welcome arrival of Dom, our joiner. He laid the floor in the new room, a waterproof laminate in anticipation of dog washing. He then built the frames for the sink and presses and managed to get the sink from Cork in place. It is extremely heavy and we were most impressed. He even fitted out some much-needed extra storage in the utility room. As a grand finale he moved the dryer in and fitted the condensing hose through the wall.

That is such a boon for us in the winter. No more draping the hose inside and trying to catch the water. No more steamed up rooms and condensation on windows. Bliss. We are now waiting for the doors to finish it off, probably in the New Year. Aidan, our plumber, has Covid so we can’t get the sink and washing machine fitted out yet. We wish him a full recovery and look forward to seeing him next month. So, mainly win and a bit of lose I think.

Well, it is a year round now and we are a few days away from the first glimpse we had of this lovely house. Like termites we have burrowed our way into it and are making it our own. Some changes are big, some very small but every step helps us feel more at home now. I will take this opportunity to send all good wishes to you all. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts this year. May the next year be a good one for everyone.

Another anniversary – and what a year

I said last week this is the time of anniversaries for us and here is another. We landed in Ireland a year ago. It is hard to believe sometimes, looking back. Firstly that a whole year has passed since we packed up and headed for an unknown future. Secondly that we have done so much in that short time. And thirdly that we made it at all, amidst changing rules, Covid and hopeless deadlines. Self-isolation, lock down and no crossing county lines when we arrived made it worse. Still, here we are in a new house in a new country – and making a new life.

It has been quite a transition in many ways. We were comfortably settled in Saltburn for many years. We left 2 days shy of our 31st year and had routines, friends and all the security of familiarity. Of course everything changes and we were slowly becoming less comfortable in our home. The town was always busy in the summer and for special days – markets, Christmas fairs and so on. Over the years the tourist season expanded but only in the final few years was it becoming suffocating.

Moving from this…
To this

Parking was always a bit dodgy but it became a battlefield with some very aggressive visitors in the streets. It was no longer possible to walk the dogs to the front and sit quietly for a while as bikes, e-bikes and large groups of people pushed and jostled. As one of our dogs is hyper-vigilant I was frequently shouted or sworn at by strangers when he barked. This, I’m sure you can imagine, did not help to calm him at all. We loved the house but longed for some outdoor space, especially in lockdown. And there was the “elephant in the room” – the approach of Brexit and all the misery that would bring us.

We miss a lot of things from Saltburn and from the UK. We had such good friends and neighbours. People knew who we were, some had read my books, we had local groups we supported in a casual way. We are very, very lucky. We sold the house, we were able to move the proceeds and buy a new home and much of our goods made the journey safely. The dogs travelled just fine. In fact they were positively phlegmatic about it all. I think we found it harder than they did overall.

Yet there is still a lingering sense of loss that comes on sometimes. Being so far from family is hard and there are friends we miss so much. It was wonderful to live by the sea for so many years and I miss the views, the wonderful icy air of winter and the solstice sunsets I watched when walking Saffron, our last Tibetan Terrier, late at night. There is not much of a tourist trade in Tipperary. Right in the middle of Ireland it is neither “The Ancient East” nor “The Wild Atlantic West”. It is lovely in a quiet, green sort of way and I don’t think I would want to go back to a popular tourist site again.

The oak trees – the foundation of our new wood

This week saw our first real storm this year, Storm Barra that swept in off the Atlantic on Tuesday. We were treated to torrential rain and wind speeds of up to 130 km an hour for 36 hours. That’s just over 80 miles an hour. We are in a strange anomaly – a sheltered dip on a hill, so escaped the worst of it. We were so glad the trees along the lane had been trimmed. I doubt we would have escaped with the Majestic intact without the sterling work of Fergus and his crew. He will be back next week as one tree on the edge of the wood is now tilting at a 45-degree angle and one more decent storm will have it down. It is now hovering over my precious young oaks so has to come down safely. Apart from that however we escaped relatively unscathed.

Full steam ahead for Christmas!

Last year we had a small but very determined Christmas, mainly as Jacqui was determined. Our wonderful friend Lynn had ensured the tree decorations and lights were in the last load. This meant they were among the few things we rescued before lock down. Patrick, the lovely manager of the cottages, provided a tree. Jacqui had packed one of the remaining puddings from the previous year and a cake. This year she is busy making new puddings from my mother’s special secret recipe and the house smells – like Christmas.

And last night we marked the passing of our first year with a chicken and special stuffing. Made from three herbs – sage, rosemary and winter savoury – they all came from our garden and combined beautifully. We have named it for the house, a small gesture to remind us that for all the old, lost routines and traditions we can make some new. They help us appreciate and celebrate our new life here.

There is much we miss but we have so much that is different to enjoy. What a year it has been.
We are very, very lucky people.

A week of miscellany – but better than the last one

This week we were expecting a fairly quiet time but life does throw a lot of stuff at you, doesn’t it? We had a few things we had to do, chiefly sort the damn bins and get to the hospital in Limerick. There was a delivery to be organised and we hoped there might be some progress on outstanding jobs. In the end there was a big rush of miscellany with varied outcomes, but hey that’s life.

First, the hospital visit on Friday. For some reason the main car park is still closed so it is a bit like a game of musical cars. Not what you want when you have a heart patient on board. And especially as the first act of the clinic is a blood pressure reading. Fortunately we arrived very early and had time to amble slowly across to reception. Then we traversed long, crowded corridors to the lift. The only way up to the clinic is by lift – but the lift can only be operated by a member of staff. There was, of course, no designated lift operator. Instead you flag down a passing staff member and hope you look respectable enough to be allowed in. Don’t ask me – I didn’t plan the system.

Once there we had a generally positive meeting with a very competent and friendly nurse. Jacqui is doing well and recovering slowly. She will need more “interventions” but these will be decided on by the specialist and a meeting is scheduled for December. For now she has to rest, take a gentle walk each day and be patient. She really does her best but she is not the most patient of patients. In her defence she says she gets bored!

The bins are another story. Finally, after five weeks a truck arrived and “swopped them out”. We managed to get a brief chat with the driver and he said the bin man was refusing to come down our road. It seems he broke a mirror in September and lost his work bonus. Well, it wasn’t our fault and we would have liked to know they weren’t coming. Especially as I’d just paid a year in advance. Monday is a public (bank) holiday here but on Tuesday I am on the phone to a supervisor.

Yesterday (Saturday) we met Fergus, the tree man. He arrived with a HUGE trailer of dried hardwood logs that will need to be stacked. We hope to get them into the Majestic but this depends on the pallets being moved and space cleared first. This also needs the newly delivered freezer installed in the grooming room – which needs the floor laid. So we are still dealing with building dominoes, though we are making some progress.

Fergus looked around the wood and agreed we had a bad case of ash dieback in the centre. However on the road boundary he pointed out a venerable ash tree, seemingly untouched. It was next to a big sycamore and there is some evidence the sycamore can help to fight this horrible disease. Fergus is something of a local historian and poet and he said that in the C19th and early C20th people ate from wooden bowls. Bowls made from sycamore wood. The wood had antibacterial properties and will grow a penicillin type fungus if left wet. We are considering sprinkling new sycamore trees through the wood when we replant to spread this protection to the other trees.

One of the great joys of the house is the view across the field from the kitchen diner. It is slightly diminished by the dog-proof fence we had to install but is still breathtaking. It is also ever changing, never the same one day to the next. Actually it’s never the same one hour to the next. We have seen small mammals and large birds in the field, buzzards circling the Fairy Fort, sunrise, sunset, full moon and the Milky Way. There are skies straight out of paintings – Casper David Friedrich, Constable, Turner and (my favourite) John Martin. He does a good apocalypse sky, does John Martin. This morning a murmuration of starlings landed in the wood and flew back and forth over the field. It is enough to lift the lowest of spirits. There were only about 200 birds but I hope it will grow and we will see them again.

A mini Murmuration

So here we are. We are being sensible, doing quiet things and trying to be patient but the great thing is we are together. Jacqui is getting better. We have to go more slowly but stuff will get done and we will both be able to enjoy the results.

Every day is a school day (in Ireland)

“Every day is a school day” is something I hear a lot in Ireland.  It startled me the first time but I think it shows how open many people here are to hearing new things.  Many adults I have known don’t like to acknowledge they don’t know something.  Perhaps they feel it is demeaning or the person talking to them is showing off.  Actually I love to learn new things.  As a writer every snippet of information, every new sight can be the basis of a story.  A wider experience means I can weave a richer background, hopefully catching a reader’s interest and making the story more real.  But maybe that’s just me.

It is easy to view Ireland (and Scotland, and Wales) as England but with a funny accent.  I learned nothing of the other nations in the Union (and out of it) at school.  We touched on the wars with Scotland, on a “Robert Bruce and the Spider” level.  Wales was referred to in relation to the Investiture in 1969.  Ireland was barely mentioned at all.  Of course, there is a huge amount to learn about a new country from the rules of the road to its rich and fascinating history. 

On a mundane level there are all the slight differences in a common language.  In England the universal positive response is “okay” or “yeah” or (in the north) “aye”.  Here it is “perfect”, whether paying in a shop or giving details over the phone.  I’ve even caught myself using it recently.  Someone recently described a group of people as “fierce”.  I was alarmed until he added, “So I get along with them all, except the last 1% I have trouble with”.  I surmise from this that “fierce” is a compliment, at least in this part of Ireland.

The history pops up in the most unexpected and ordinary places.  Driving into town I noticed a black sign on a cottage window.  When I stopped one time I read it was marking a “Stirabout window” which was a new idea for me.  It sounds quite altruistic, feeding the local population during the famine.  Stirabout, I discovered, was a sort of oat porridge and the regular fare in workhouses.  Not much of a step up from gruel, though if you’re starving it would have been welcome.

Bindweed, NOT Japanese Knotweed!

Sometimes we unwittingly teach others stuff we know, about the pictures in the house for example.  Sometimes they teach us, about farm rules and local legend.  Occasionally we learn something together.  Davey, our builder, had a digger in over the weekend and used the extra time to run through a bit more of the wood.  We finally reached the back boundary in one place – delight!  Then despair as he looked at the overgrowing creepers and said they looked like Japanese Knotweed.   This was a horrifying prospect – it is everywhere and growing at a staggering rate.  We flew to the internet and our wild flower books and after an anxious half hour decided it is bindweed.  That’s bad but can be controlled – with work.  We all compared notes and went off with a bit more knowledge for the future.

On the house front, we are a bit wrung out but the bathroom now has a proper shower cubicle – no more Titanic mornings for us.  And the electricity is finally stable.  The wiring was – eccentric – but Derrick and Davey did another heroic,  late evening.  After seven hours with no power (or water as the pump went off) Derrick found the problem and rewired the entire fuse board.  No more Apollo 13 moments for us, we hope.  Now we just have to get the solar panels in and we can hunker down for winter.

Market Dahlias

Jacqui is doing well, resting and avoiding most of the building stress.  Though she is driving me crazy by thinking up 17,000 things she can do sitting down, which doesn’t count of course. We went out for the first time on Friday and visited the local Institute’s weekly market.  It was lovely and we came back with dahlias, fresh carrots and an orange Madeira cake to die for. 

Turing Tumble, re-programming my brain

So that’s us.  A bit shorter this week as no electricity means no wifi – or computer.  I passed the long, powerless days with my Christmas present – the first chance I’ve had to play with it.  It’s a “Turing Tumble”, a kit that teaches you to make and program a computer powered by small marbles.  It is fascinating, mentally challenging and great fun.

Yes, even when we are resting every day is a school day.

A summer of “plagues” in Tipperary

Summer has always brought “plagues” to most places and Tipperary is no different.  Many of these are due to moving into a house that has always been a rental property.  With the really big plague – Covid – still circulating the rental market has collapsed.  This brought our house onto the market (definitely not a plague!) but has exacerbated some issues. 

Left empty for almost two years, a lot of uninvited guests moved in.  I’ve already introduced you to the rats.  We got very serious about them when I was using the upstairs bathroom.  Glancing down I saw a furry little snout poking out under the loft door.  It was too large to be a mouse (I’ve suffered a plague of them before in bed-sitter land).  We sealed the gaps with expanding foam and invested in bulk tubs of poison.  I was in a hurry and really should have read the instructions for the foam first.  Who knew it kept on expanding so much?  Fortunately the rats did not keep expanding and we seem rat free at the moment.

A bit over enthusiastic with the filler

Way back in February I opened a door downstairs and was greeted by a swarm of flies.  They were literally everywhere – flying, crawling, battering at the window.  A nightmare encounter.  We rode into town and grabbed a can of spray – there was no other way to contain the insects.  The woman in the shop was sympathetic.  Empty houses are plagued by this, she said.  The flies get in, hatch, nest in every corner and just multiply.  Over the past months I’ve tackled a swarm in every room – twice in some.  Now we have a heat wave and they are back, in even greater numbers.  We’ve put up fly papers, sprayed empty rooms and are waiting for our rechargeable zappers to arrive.  Meanwhile I do occasional hunts with a very efficient swatter. Jacqui is of the opinion I have “fly rage”.

One tiny bit of my floor this morning

The plagues of Egypt included frogs and we have frogs but I don’t consider them a plague.  In March I kept finding tiny brown newts in our back garden.  I collected each one and put then into the wood.  Then in late spring we saw our first frog.  Just a couple of inches long, green with brown patches, it was hopping through the grass.  We’ve seen a fair number since, probably emerging from the remains of our pond in the far corner of the wood.  I say “remains of” as we seem to have a plague of fly-tippers.  It is choked with branches, undergrowth and strange lumpy things.  Next spring we will get the digger back, clean it out and fence it off.

This is actually a pond!

A couple of days ago the heat wave brought on a thunderstorm of biblical proportions.  I was trying to record the latest episode of “Tipperary Tales” and you can hear drop out from lightning in places.  It was so loud we abandoned Book of the Month!

After twenty minutes it turned into hail (also a plague in Egypt) – huge stones that settled in the corners and persisted despite the continuing heat.  A bit of a plague as it didn’t do the more fragile plants much good.  On the other hand it was a little bit cooler that night, and I didn’t need to water the garden either.

We have other “plagues” – really nice ones.  On my walk down to photograph the pond I saw six different types of butterfly.  They are very numerous here and only a plague when they fly into the house.  This happens several times a day and I’m getting adept at catching them gently and taking them outside.  We also have what could be considered a plague – many spiders around the windows and doors.  We started to clear the webs and then the flies arrived so now we leave them.  The enemy of our enemy is our friend.  Though last week I was so frustrated I apparently threatened one with eviction for not doing its job.  Jacqui swears it is true.  I don’t remember – it was very hot.

Note the empty web!

The final plague is not confined to Tipperary, or even to Ireland.  It is the plague of bureaucrats.  Moving to another country means navigating a minefield of new and different regulations.  Due to Covid (still a plague) the usual advice channels are closed, out of date or contradictory.  For example, we could not exchange our driving licenses before the deadline at the end of December.  Then we could drive for a while on an International Driving Permit, then we couldn’t as we bought a house.  Suddenly we could exchange licenses but needed other documents to do so.  At one point we needed to take the driving test (with mandatory driving lessons) first.  Then that changed again and we rushed to get the documents needed.  And tomorrow we finally get to swap our licenses.

Everything is like that! 

I can’t wait until we try to swap our tax status.

Yes, yes, let’s talk about the weather!

With thanks to WS Gilbert for the title

In the UK everyone talks about the weather.  It’s a national pastime and one we came to expect and accept.  It seems it is the same in Ireland.  One important difference here is you cannot go into a shop, pick up a paper, put the money down and walk out.  No, every transaction begins with, “Hello, how are ye today?”  Then a few general pleasantries and then, if you are in for the first time, some gentle(ish) questions about who, what, why…  Especially why did you come to Ireland – and inevitably this is followed by, “It wasn’t for the weather, for sure”.  Everyone talks about the weather, especially in the country where it can be vital for the farmers.

The community here is a decent size – small UK town or big village maybe.  Yet the second time we went into the pharmacy the woman serving greeted Jacqui by her first name and asked how we were settling in.  This has been the case practically everywhere.  One notable thing for us coming from the growing “hostile environment” in the UK was everyone, when they heard we had bought our house, was pleased.  And so many said something like, “Well now, firstly you are very welcome”.  And then they would add something about the weather, of course.

At the moment we have a heat wave with glorious sunshine and temperatures topping 29 degrees.  That’s about 85 in Fahrenheit.  The sky is a startling blue, the clouds are shiny white and everything in the garden has gone mad.  There were some lumpy, frosted stems in the front we thought we should remove in the spring.  Suddenly we had lilies – five feet tall and luminescent in the sunlight.  The lavender round the Majestic has gone crazy and fills the air with scent.  It is far too hot to do much during the day so I have been up early and tried a bit of clearing with the strimmer.  As I am rather short (and the weeds are very high) I invested in a helmet with visor to fend off tumbling nettles and thistles.  I look ridiculous – a sort of mini Darth Vader – but it is better than a face full of undergrowth. 

Jennie Vader

We also decided to cut our losses and got a man with a digger in to clear the side garden.  John and his magic machine were terrific.  Where the suspect piles of rubbish and heaps of brambles made any progress impossible we now have rich, fallow soil that is almost level.  Several passers-by have asked what we are going to do with the land.  We don’t know yet though the back by the hedge is earmarked for a wild flower garden.  And best of all, the rats will be gone from there.  John steered his digger round the margins and carefully avoided disturbing the hedges.  These are a bit overly enthusiastic at the moment but we are leaving then until autumn.  The birds are nesting here – robins, blackbirds and gold finches – and they will not be disturbed.  Even the starlings have been let alone.

Speaking of starlings, we had a tense moment in the spring.  One morning we heard strange noises coming from the log burner chimney.  They were faint at first and we thought it was birds on the roof.  Over the morning they got louder until we could hear scrabbling in the metal pipe.  Calls to local sweeps went unanswered so we tried to open the stove ourselves.  After a frantic call to the previous owners we managed to lift the top and a young starling shot out, flying past us into the kitchen.  After several attempts Jacqui managed to catch it and let it out of the back door, much to the disappointment of the dogs.  It flew onto the roof and chattered at us for five minutes before flying off.  It would be nice to think it was thanking us but somehow I don’t think so.

When we arrived it was grey – grey with shades of mud.  Even the snow fell from grey clouds and there was not enough to settle and turn the countryside white.  Everyone in England told us how wet and rainy it was in Ireland.  We looked out of the window and wondered whether we had made a mistake after all.  Now in the midst of summer with flowers, birds, trees and insects (oh so many insects!) we know we will have these bright days to look to when winter comes.  And hopefully everything will stop growing and we can make some progress.

Lock down life and unwelcome residents

We were under lock down almost as soon as we arrived and it would have been easy to feel isolated, especially so far out in the countryside.  In fact the wide open spaces proved to keep us rather busy.  A combination of warm weather in March and the (in)famous rain led to an explosion in the garden.  The grass shot up and with it a swathe of dandelions and primroses.  We had no intention of attempting to create a traditional lawn.  Apart from anything else most grass in Ireland grows mixed in with moss.  We used the new strimmer around the primroses, avoided the biggest clumps of dandelions and left it for the bees. 

I say the “new” strimmer as when we arrived we were rather short on garden tools.  As previous owners of a ten foot square yard we had just one trowel.  Derek, the mover, looked at it and said, “Think you’re going to need a bigger spade”.  He was right, of course.  In fact apart from food shopping and the occasional book most of our expenditure has been on tools and garden hardware.  A lot of our DIY tools were left behind by the idiot movers and had to be replaced but we never needed a hedge trimmer.  Or reciprocal tree saw, loppers, lawnmower, heavy duty clippers ….. the list seemed endless.

As did the task ahead as we ventured into the wood to take stock.  It had been sadly neglected over the years.  There were a lot of trees – ash, beech, alder, willow, hawthorn and oak, all jumbled up together.  The brambles had grown in from the boundaries, as far as fifteen feet in places.  The grass of up to five years was packed across the few open spaces and walking was dangerous.  As I tried to get to the back of the plot the whole surface gave way suddenly.  My leg plunged knee deep into the undergrowth leaving me struggling to move – and very thankful there are no snakes in Ireland. 

I looked around, focusing on one tree at a time.  Each one was choked with brambles, ivy and sticky weed (Galium Aparine to a gardener).  The weight of these parasites was pulling down the tree branches and sucking the life from them, as was the anklet of moss around each trunk.  A large number of trees had obviously already succumbed but we decided to wait for summer, to see how many showed signs of life.  We had a conference around the kitchen table.  Each tree would need to be cleared of weeds and ivy, old and new, but this depended on reaching them in the first place, something currently almost impossible.  It was off to the hardware shop again.

We not only had the wood to contend with, we also had the piece of land behind the Majestic.  This had huge piles of tree roots, earth and building rubbish scattered across it, far too heavy for us to move.  I had eyed several mounds with suspicion, wary of tackling them.  As a crime writer my first thought was perhaps there was a body under there.  In fact there was something worse.  Rats.

Having rats in England is a source of shame.  Only dirty (or unlucky, or poor) people have rats.  It is different in Ireland, especially anywhere outside the main cities.  Everyone has rats.  Each year the shops fill up with traps, bait boxes and poisons.  Everyone has a favourite method for catching them.  They prefer the grain to blocks, we were told.  Use peanut butter – they can’t resist it.  Fix the blocks so they have to eat them and not carry them off.  I was talking to the store owner on a visit to the cottages. He nodded and said, “I had three round my bird table.  Waited ‘til they got down and shot them”.  I was impressed.  “Did you use an air rifle?” I asked.  He blinked at me, shaking his head. “Nah, shotgun”.  Now, I hate rats as much as the next person but that doesn’t seem very sporting.

We began to watch our bird feeder and sure enough, early in the evening spotted a rat up at the seed hanger.  I was so incensed I shot out of the back door, seized a metal off-cut and raced across the lawn to the back wall. I was yelling and going the full Maori warrior. The rat heard me and sat up.  He stared for an instant and made a dash for a hole in the wall. 

I don’t know who was more relieved he made it, me or him.

Strange Infrastructure way out in the Country

I said a few posts ago the house seemed a long way out in the country and it is.  This has some very good things.  There are no noisy neighbours, for example apart from occasional tractors hurrying past and the cows in the evening.   We have no problem parking as there’s a large gravel forecourt.  The dogs aren’t up at the windows shouting at passers by every few minutes either.  At night the skies are full of stars and during the days the garden and woods are full of birds.  It is calm, peaceful and very lovely.

It also has some drawbacks of course.  There is mains electricity though this is a bit dodgy, especially in stormy weather.  Our water comes from a well just outside the back door that feeds the taps.  Those of you with fertile imaginations should banish the picture of “Ye Olde Worlde Well” with thatched roof and a bucket and read on.  This is an underground bore hole and at the moment if the electricity goes off so does the pump, so no water.  We are hoping to remedy this by fitting a solar pump soon.  In the meantime if it looks too bad we fill flasks and a bucket or two, just in case. 

ESB, the electrical network here, are very efficient and they have a website to report and check outages.  On the other hand, the fact this is constantly showing outages, repairs and ongoing problems suggests the basic infrastructure may be a bit shaky.  I think this may mean it is developing the network in more, and more remote, places.  Unlike the UK they are not fighting a battle with decaying and outdated infrastructure where they underwent Industrialization early.  I recall a recent incident in Saltburn where apparently moles (yes – moles!) were blamed for bringing down power lines to half the town. 

There is, of course, no mains drainage so that is a bit of a learning curve for us.  So is the water actually.  The house has been empty for several years and routine maintenance has been rather neglected.  We didn’t know about things like salt tablets for the water.  In fact when we found out we got a 25 kilo bag of salt and had no idea where it went.  The kettle was encrusted with lime in two days and everything had to be scrubbed clean, it was so bad.  I was starting to panic, wondering just how bad the water was, before our builder stepped in to help. There’s a softener unit in the shed, we discovered.  Once we shoveled a vast amount of tablets in, the water was greatly improved.  In fact it is now so soft that plates slide out of your hands if you’re not careful.

There’s very little gas network in Ireland and our heating is supplied by an oil fired boiler.  Lurking in the shed, it gobbles fuel and emits a steady miasma of fumes. This is a step up from the immersion heater in the cottage where there was no hot water at all for an hour or so after getting up in the morning but it’s not ideal. It was efficient enough in the winter but there’s no way to have hot water without running the heating too.  This is a bit much in the summer so we are also having our own gas tank fitted and a new boiler fitted.  There’s a lot I don’t miss too much but instant hot water – oh, priceless!

Speaking of the shed, this is one of the bonuses that came with the house.  Most properties have similar buildings out in the country in Ireland but ours is bigger than many.  It is old – probably as old as the original cottage area.  It also needs a lot of work though it is surprisingly weatherproof.  On arrival we put many of the boxes and some furniture in there and there’s no water damage or damp at all.  One end houses the oil tank (phew!), the boiler and the water softener but this will all go soon, opening up a large and light area.  Once the roof is strengthened the solar panels will go up, facing south to harvest the light.  We have plans for the rest of this space.

We have christened it “The Hotel Majestic” as the shed key came with one of those big labels hotels use to stop visitors going off with them.  It is a bit short of “Majestic” at present but the space and the light are both fantastic.  In Saltburn Jacqui had a little workshop for her stained glass projects.  Here we have a wonderful area for her to fit out and use as she wishes.  We are collecting old pallets to reuse and make into benches and storage for the glass.  Some of the glass made it to Ireland, more by luck than any help from the movers, but a lot was left behind by them and will need to be replaced.  Still, we will source what we need and make it truly “Majestic”. 

Yes, there’s a lot to do way out in the country but once we have the basics in place I think it will be just fine.