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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!  https://www.podbean.com/site/EpisodeDownload/PB10983147NNKI

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.

Our house is a very fine house

As soon as our offer for the house was accepted time seemed to drag.  Days were darker, longer and colder with the prospect of that fine house ahead of us.  This was made much worse by the lockdown as there was no going anywhere.  We couldn’t even go up to look at “our” house as it was three times further away than the travel limit allowed.  Our days were measured out in domestic tasks enlivened by walks in the small park with the dogs. 

Here we came across an interesting Irish phenomenon.  Meeting a stranger with his young daughter, he greeted us and asked where we were from.  As we explained who we were he asked a series of questions before nodding happily.  Sure, he knew our lovely Irish friends.  In fact he was – complicated in-law and cousin’s relationship followed – so they were family too.  Satisfied he now knew us and had placed us in the web of local relationships he carried on with his walk, waving a cheery goodbye.  It is easy to forget just how small the population of Ireland is and everyone seems to be related to everyone else, however tenuously.  I resolved to dig out my genealogy notes and find my own links to the area if possible.

We were also struggling to advance the necessary paperwork for the car, licences, medical arrangements… Until you leave a country you don’t realise how embedded your life is in that nation’s systems.  I developed a healthy respect for anyone trying to join the UK.  National Insurance numbers appear at birth along with all the other records built up over a lifetime of residence.  Strip that away and health care, many civil rights, financial stability, even the right to buy a mobile phone or connect to electricity can be difficult to establish. 

In the midst of a pandemic all queries and requests were handled remotely, if at all.  We relied on the only computer we had in the cottage, a 20 year old Toshiba laptop I had grabbed at the last minute.  It was running an extremely  out-of-date operating system, the battery was shot and it was unbelievably slow but it did actually work – eventually.  Of course, we had no printer so any letters had to be sent by e-mail or hand written but we kept chipping away at the bureaucratic wall. We were determined to be ready when the house papers came through.  Without our valiant little Toshiba I doubt we would have managed at all so here’s a shout-out for an unbelievably tough (and now happily retired) machine.

Our Little Hero!

We got our completion date, after a few hiccups, just nine weeks after our arrival in Ireland.  Our estate agent/auctioneer, Noel, delivered the keys to us and we rang our storage owner to let them know we were starting the move.  Up the hill about 10 kilometres we pulled into the drive and opened the door to our new house.  It was cold but the log burner was on again and our builder friend appeared with two barrels of oil to keep the boiler going.  Something else to sort out – how did we get fuel?  How did we get the electricity account transferred?  And we really wanted the log-burner on!  Our kind vendors threw the door to the shed open and showed us eight large sacks of wood they were leaving behind.  More kindness from relative strangers.

Jacqui drove to the storage and began to supervise moving some of our goods.  The wonderful Derek and his Merry Men, Will and Anthony, were already waiting, eager to start.  As they levered up the door to one of the lockers Derek’s mouth fell open in shock.

            ‘Ah, they’ve just f**ked that all in there!’ he said.  There was muttering from his lads.  It wasn’t just careless, they decided.  They way they had treated our home contents was abusive.  As carefully as they could they began to disentangle and repack stuff in their van.  Jacqui had made a plan for me as stuff arrived at the house and I directed as best I could.

“Just f**ked in there”

It was a long job, taken slowly over three days and we went back to the cottage overnight. Soon our builder fitted the new gates to secure the garden area. Then security lights were fitted and we were ready to stay overnight.  There were boxes everywhere of course. I couldn’t work out how to fix the beds properly and some vital components were missing for two of them.  Who the hell dismantles a bed and leaves the bolts behind??  The amazing Lynn spotted one set when cleaning the Saltburn house. She posted them on to us but the others were gone for good.  Still, we ran the heating all night to lift two years of chill. That night we camped out with a picnic table and had our first meal in our new house. 

We knew there were a lot of small problems, from wonky taps to loose doors.  Most of the vent covers to the windows were missing so we sealed them up with tape.  Doors could be jiggled.  We just swore at the taps.  We still could not believe our luck in finding what was in the words of our builder friend, a very fine house. 

That evening I watched the sun go down behind the trees in the field behind us.

“That’s a Fairy Fort”, said our friend.  “Ye keep out of there or it brings bad luck.  But stay away and maybe they look out for ya”.

Yes, it is a very fine house, with interesting neighbours from the sound of it.  Despite the proximity to the ‘wee folk’ we slept very, very well that night.

The Fairy Fort at sunset

Learning to appreciate what we have

It is a given that Ireland is wetter than Britain, sitting further out in the Atlantic.  It is generally quite a bit warmer however.  The locals were delighted and a bit apprehensive when we woke to a light dusting of snow in the New Year.  We took the dogs into the park and they trotted back and forth, sniffing and threatening to roll in the stuff.  Not a good idea as snow turns to ice balls in their coat. There was enough to make a slide on one of the rises and just enough for the world’s smallest snow man. 

You call that snow??

More alarming (for us) were the storms that whip across the Atlantic.  These are very common in winter, bringing winds of over 80 k an hour.  The rain is fearsome and often floods urban areas.  In the village it drained away fast, leaving copious areas of mud, much to the dogs’ delight.  We were sheltered from the worst of them but the sunsets were magnificent.  I thought about the house much higher on the hills and decided to investigate storm shutters for the windows.

Stormy sunset in Tipperary

We had managed one quick visit to the house before lockdown and met the vendors.  This confirmed our choice – we still loved the house.  We knew there was probably “something” wrong with it.  It was just too much of a bargain.  If something seems too good to be true it probably is, and this is the case here.  But – spoiler alert – we were prepared for a few surprises.  And we have no regrets.  We were all eager to complete as soon as possible.  The vendors had lost several sales in the past and didn’t want to risk it again.  We were weary, fractious and desperate to settle. 

One problem with the lock down was the lack of anyone qualified to do a survey (an Engineer’s Report in Ireland).  Travel was strictly limited and crossing county lines totally forbidden.  After some negotiation we managed to purchase a copy of the report prepared in the summer and sent that off to our solicitor.  A huge mass of papers came back, many of them unfamiliar, and there was no chance to meet or discuss them.  And the biggest sticking point was our lack of a PPS number. 

This is similar to a National Insurance number in the UK.  Without it we could not pay the stamp duty – no payment, no house.  A lot of the evidence needed to prove we were residents was not available to us.  We had UK driving licenses and passports (wrong address) and none of the “evidence of residence” items.  We had only been there a month and were in rented accommodation.  Our pitiful offers of a redirection receipt and address labels were laughingly dismissed and then our entire case file vanished from the system.  Finally we managed to make personal contact with someone in the Dublin office.  They listened, offered some advice and managed to issue the numbers in what was record time.  Thank you Sharon, the most civil of Civil Servants!  Without her we might still be in the cottage.

As we ground our way through unfamiliar forms and deeply unhelpful websites (some in Ireland, many in the UK) we had Jacqui’s birthday to celebrate.  Post from the UK had almost dried up, especially parcel post.  The new customs arrangements effectively stopped anything getting through from British suppliers.  We couldn’t go into any shops that might offer – oh, a card or something nice for a gift.  They were all closed and large swathes of the supermarket were cordoned off.  We hunted through our meager resources and assembled a decent meal, using our last special bottles of wine.  Before we left we had bought a large block of sheep’s cheese from Real Meals, the deli in Saltburn.  How we missed Real Meals, with so many lovely things to taste and share.  The cheese was still excellent and we hope to find it again some day.

The best sheep’s cheese we have ever tasted

Putting nostalgia firmly behind us we began to make new choices, trying local produce.   In other years I had always got Jacqui’s birthday cake from the Stonehouse Bakery in Saltburn.  They make a fabulous coffee and walnut cake, our favourite.  Well, I spoke to the “cake man” when he was delivering to Kennedy’s over the road and he produced a coffee and walnut cake for me.  It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.  In fact I think it was the Barbara Cartland of cakes.  I’ve never seen so much sweet butter cream on a cake before – layers inside, over the outside and great piped rosettes around the top.  It was delicious but we scooped the rosettes off and put then on small, plain cakes.  All that slap – far too sweet for us!

The Barbara Cartland of cakes

So with a home made card, a series of e-books by one of her favourite authors and some interesting Irish touches we celebrated this first birthday in Ireland.  Looking back I think it was one of the happiest in recent years.  We were beginning to appreciate what we had rather than mourn what was lost.  And certainly we lived by the idea that “Less is More”.

Time for a radical rethink

Now, I don’t want you thinking we were just sitting around moaning about the cold.  We had intended to stop and try to recover a little after the recent insane few months but we were struggling in the cottage.  It was a perfect base for a holiday but not really set up for long-term life and so we spent a lot of time looking at available houses.  Remember my inability to visualize sizes?  Yes, that became very apparent when we compared the homes for sale with the property we were in.  Many of them were almost the same size.  A radical rethink was needed.

One morning I was sitting at the table with my coffee and I stumbled on a house I’d not seen before.  It was obviously built on a traditional cottage but considerably extended.  There were a lot of rooms, a decent little garden and looked very nice inside.  It also had a small wood that came with the house.  That made me laugh and I took the phone through to show Jacqui.  We could be owners of a wood – hahaha!   A bit more of a radical rethink than we had in mind. Ten minutes later we were on the phone.  It was December 22nd, we were just out of quarantine and everything was about to shut down for Christmas.  Why not start buying a house?

It was a miserable day.  The locals had all been complaining that it was wet, even for Ireland.  There were rainy days, stormy days and “dirty days”, when everything turned to mud and the rain was relentless.  This was a “dirty day”.  Our satnav decided the best way to send us was along a series of ever-narrowing roads with few buildings and mud across the surface.  We had always said it was not a good idea to take a road with grass growing down the middle.  Well, if we’d stuck with that we would never have got there.

The house, when we finally arrived, was perfect.  Well, not perfect but very, very good.  Our good friend is a builder and he drove out to meet us and the agent, to look it over and give a professional opinion.  It was cold inside as it was empty but the log burner in the small front room (a “snug” we were informed) was on and this had the same effect coffee or fresh bread is supposed to have.  We walked through the house mentally checking off the space we needed.  It was big enough, it was fairly modern and we would be able to afford some of the changes we might want.

Outside there was a lot of room.  Not only the garden and the wood (!) but a big outbuilding with a bit more land behind.  There were a few issues.  It was well water, not mains, and this was shared with a neighbour.  The heating was oil, one of my least favourite fuels, and there was no mains drainage.  This set-up is quite typical for much of rural Ireland where there are few main services however.  We could have the space and the beautiful views or try living in a town.  Standing in the garden I could hear – nothing.  Then a few birds, then nothing again.  I felt a little bit more of the recent stress slip away.

Our very own wood!

My concerns about the relative isolation were relieved when the agent pointed out a more direct route back home.  We were closer to some other houses up the road and about ten minutes drive took us into the nearest town.  We sat down and drew up a list of positives and negatives when we got back.  A few negatives like no outside street lighting – actually no street which was a positive in many ways.  And “no lighting” could be fixed by us easily.  A few questions about the water, of course.   The positives list was much longer.  The next day we put in an offer, emphasising we were cash buyers and wanted to move as soon as possible.  So by Christmas Eve we had an offer accepted on a house, just two weeks after we arrived. 

With the Christmas festivities behind us we began to plan for the New Year, only to be hit by the announcement of a full level 5 lockdown beginning on the 30th of December.  This was a major blow.  We had barely been able to go out since our arrival and were desperate to try and get some things from our storage.  We had no idea how this would affect our move either.  A five kilometre travel limit loomed except for essential shopping, which did not include clothes.  I had to resign myself to my raggedy wardrobe for a while longer as we couldn’t unpack anything else from the lockers without the whole lot collapsing on us.  Jacqui made a dash into town before the deadline and found me a decent shirt and spent some long, quiet evenings patching and darning my pitiful garments.

Very raggedy shirts

What could we do?  We hunkered down, chucked more peat on the fire and began to work our way through the process of house purchase remotely.  We wanted the house very much and we were determined to get it – and as soon as possible.  Especially as, most unusually for the south west of Ireland, it began to snow.

Moving from Darkness into Light

It is dark at night in rural Ireland. Very, very dark, especially in the rain – and especially in winter.  As we turned the corner into the village suddenly there were lights from houses by the road.  The shop and pub opposite the entrance to our little enclave had bright windows and outside lamps shone on sacks of fuel.  We staggered from the car and waited in the rain as the dogs sniffed and had a pee on the walls.  The front door was flung open and our friends were waiting with open arms – literally – to greet us.  Inside it was bright, warm and surprisingly crowded considering we were in the main room and there were four adults, three small dogs and one little girl.  A fire roared up the chimney in the ingle nook and we were ushered into chairs as we took off the dogs’ leads and blinked in the light.  It was a wonderful welcome.

After greetings, wine, sandwiches, more wine and a guided tour of the cottage from the little girl we fell into the beds that were already made up, too tired to unpack the car.  The next morning we found supplies for breakfast in the cupboards, provided by our lovely friends. We were able to finally stop and take stock.  We opened the last of the cards and presents from Saltburn and decorated the main room with them.  The fire had gone out and it was cold – very, very cold.  There had been virtually no visitors over the last year and the cottage was in hibernation. Storage heaters in the bedrooms took off some of the chill but we were going to need the fire on constantly to keep warm and wake up our home.

Our cottage and home for the next few months was one of eleven set around two little greens.  Built in the 1960s for tourists they were “traditional” in style.  Deep walls, stone floors, basic furnishings, small windows and very small rooms.  Perfect for a holiday but not perhaps ideal in winter for long-term residence. We unpacked the car and waited for a delivery from the nearest supermarket that Jacqui had ordered before we left.  Apart from unpacking our meagre goods and walking the dogs in the park behind the cottages we were pretty much comatose for a few days. 

We did manage a celebratory dinner on the second night.  Saltburn has a marvellous butcher, Gosnay’s, and we had one final steak from his meat counter along with some excellent wine carried in the boot and wrapped in towels.  We had ordered a large block of special sheep’s cheese from Real Meals before we left.  It and the steak travelled without harm and we raised a glass to all our friends left behind and our friends in Ireland who had made the journey possible.  

Musing on life and strange coincidences I remembered when we moved from Somerset 31 years before.  We had visited Street, the home of shoe making in the west, and I found a pair of painted boots with a picture of a cliff on them.  As we drove into Saltburn we saw Huntcliff – a distinctive shape that matched my boots exactly.  It looked like a sign. 

The week before leaving for Ireland I had packed an unfamiliar tea towel, probably from Jacqui’s great aunt, with a picture of a donkey outside a cottage.  Looking out of the window I saw a rainbow over the green and realised these cottages matched that picture.  Another sign perhaps? 

I looked at the news and saw Scotland and Ireland were both closing their borders to all travellers.  Despite the cold, despite the exhaustion I felt a great rush of relief.  With barely 36 hours to spare we had made it.

December is not a good time to move

December is never a good time to move house.  We should know – all of our moves have taken place in December due to differing circumstances.  This December however was the hardest of the lot. 

We drove off in the car loaded with bedding, three dogs and essentials of life for the first few days.  It was just after 2pm and already getting dark as the rain began to fall.  We had a satnav – something I have resisted for years, and after this journey I felt fully justified in my prejudice.  It assured us our journey was 253 miles to the hotel.  The miles ticked off as we ploughed through what developed into a storm but although we had followed it’s snooty voice without question a glance at a real map showed we were nowhere near Stranrae when it reached a mere 10 miles to go.  By the time we got to the hotel it was almost 7.30 at night and we had driven an extra 80 miles. And the satnav was now telling us we were still 10 miles away.

The hotel was dark, just a faint light in the reception area.  At first glance it could have passed as a set for “The Shining”.  We hauled ourselves up the entrance steps and across the lobby, footsteps and dogs’ claws echoing in the gloom.  I think we must have looked awful as the lovely receptionist persuaded the kitchen staff to stay on and make us something to eat.  We staggered to our rooms and collapsed, feeding the dogs first and covering the bed with a blanket to guard against paw marks.  The food was excellent, delivered to our door, and the dogs seemed happy despite such a disruptive and strange week.  We slept – oh how we slept.

Oh, how we slept!

The next morning we left the echoing, empty hotel that had been so kind and welcome and headed for the port.  The satnav, obviously inhabited by a malicious spirit of some kind, sent us round in circles for ten minutes until we turned it off and navigated ourselves, arriving just in time to load.  The worst part was leaving the dogs in the car.  We had chosen Stranrae to Belfast as it was only two hours.  Two of the dogs are good, experienced travellers but the youngest had never done anything like this before.  We settled them in their crates, left little treats hidden in their blankets and stumbled upstairs just hoping they would settle and sleep. 

Sunrise over Stranrae

On board the staff were lovely, there were coffee, tea and pastries available and excellent seating areas.  We chose a place away from the televisions which was just as well as the BBC was announcing new travel restrictions and an imminent lockdown in Northern Ireland.  If necessary we would claim ignorance – it was too late now and we had nowhere to go back to.  As we pulled away from the dock and set out across the Irish Sea I felt an overwhelming rush of emotion and began to cry.  It was a mixture of relief, exhaustion, fear (mainly for the dogs) and grief for all we were leaving behind.   Looking back now I can still feel that pain, lessened by time but still enough to hurt.  I’m only surprised I didn’t cry earlier but I think we were both hanging on so tightly we didn’t dare relax.

The dogs were, of course, fine when we got back to the car.  The little Trojans had just curled up and slept with no fuss and less worry than I had experienced.  As we drove out of the port we passed a large group of police and customs officials who were setting up cones and signs, the new checkpoint.  We drove on, trying to look suitably respectable which was not easy under the circumstances, not stopping until we reached the service area on the motorway.  Here we grabbed sandwiches and water and walked the dogs before heading for the border and our final destination.

The journey was quite uneventful after that, enlivened only by another storm and the bastard satnav lopping another 80 miles off the journey.  Oh, and a Gardai checkpoint on the motorway outside Dublin.  Although it was rush hour every car was stopped causing a long tailback.  When we got to the front of the queue a very young and very wet officer looking into the car, raising his eyebrows at the contents.  By this time we probably looked more like car residents than respectable travellers.

   “Can I ask you the purpose of yer journey today?” he asked, raising his voice over the barking.

I was very tired and in no mood to be stopped so close to achieving the impossible.

            “We are moving,” I said.  “We have rented a cottage near Nenagh and we are going there.”

There was a pause as he digested this before stepping back and waving us on.

            “You have a safe journey then” he said.

That was when I knew it just might all work out.

Full speed ahead to nowhere

With new restrictions and rules changing almost weekly it seemed we were moving at full speed but going nowhere. Suddenly time seemed to speed up as the deadline to move came ever closer yet we were still floating in a sea of uncertainty. Moving home was one of the exceptions to the lockdown but only in England. We were hoping to go abroad, a journey through four countries, each with their own rules. And still no-one seemed to know exactly what could be done. Or answer their phone.

The only course of action was to get on with what we could control and hope the rest worked out. After some difficulty we finally managed a (socially distanced and masked) meeting with the estate agent. They liked the house – a lot – but noted it was extremely untidy. Yes, trying to pack up a lifetime whilst not being able to throw out or recycle will do that to a home. We settled on a stratagy for photographs. Do the front of the house one afternoon and move the boxes to the rear. Then do the back one morning and reverse the process. This required several days of “wasted” effort but the results were quite stunning. In fact I was almost tempted to buy the place myself, it looked so good.

Knowing we were hopefully about to get some (socially distanced and masked) visitors, we focussed on tidying and clearing as much as we could, much to the disgust of the dogs who wanted this to all stop and get back to normal. Alas, there was no going back and we were heading for a totally unknown “normal” in an unknown place. As we waited for viewings we began to look for a place to rent in Ireland. This was far more difficult than we had imagined. Ireland was undergoing something of a housing crisis and rental properties were rare and highly prized. This pushed up the price and it was impossible to get anyone to take us seriously. We were English, still in England and with only English bank accounts and no references. We also had three dogs, albeit small dogs, and most landlords didn’t want any pets.

It looked as if we were heading down a slope with nowhere to land when our wonderful friends in Ireland stepped in. Somehow they managed to persuade a holiday cottage owner to let us have an empty cottage for a long term. It was actually the one place we knew, where we had stayed on our visit four years ago. We breathed a huge sigh, sent off the deposit and blessed our friends for a miracle. We turned our attention back to the house and I knew I was falling badly behind. In desperation I began to heave stuff into big boxes, seal them and label them “TBS” – “To Be Sorted”. Even so, I made a total hash of the whole thing. The whole experience was made worse by the fact my other half was already at work on the kitchen and the china. A wonderful friend had cleared the rooms with us for photographs and was busy on the bedding. I felt like an abject failure and the memory of those days still haunts me.

Absolutely the worst packer in the world

Despite the barely concealed chaos most viewers were impressed with the house and after only three weeks we had a number of offers. We accepted one and then waited for the surveyors, the Energy Performance Certificate and then the second survey for the purchaser’s bank. Everyone was fully booked, delays were inevitable and once more time was slipping by. Then came two hammer blows.

We were supposed to be driving to Stranrae to stay overnight before catching the early ferry but there was a change in the rules. We got a phone call from the hotel telling our booking was cancelled as “non-essential”. And then, with no warning, the sale fell through. We were almost out of time, we were heading nowhere and if we tried to go we’d be sleeping in a lay-by with three dogs overnight.

That was not a good day.