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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  Unlike the UK they are not fighting a battle with decaying and outdated infrastructure where they underwent Industrialization early.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.

Birds, Boxes and total Bewilderment

One of the most striking things about the house was the number of birds co-habiting our little acreage.  We picked our way past piles of boxes to open the back door and the bird song barely hesitated.  It was February but there were many birds rarely seen in England until spring or summer.  In the first few days I saw Blackbirds, Robins, Great and Blue Tits, Sparrows, Pied Wagtails, and Gold Finches.  And the ever-present Rooks of course.  Suddenly that first morning they all fell silent and I looked out to see what had happened.  Floating over the garden, about twenty feet up, was a large, dark bird of prey.  It circled a couple of times, gave an odd burping sound and drifted off towards the Fairy Fort.

“Buzzard,” said our builder when I asked him.  “Been reintroduced in the last ten years.  You’ll have a couple over there probably.” 

I had a moment of panic.  The thing was huge – beautiful but huge.  Could it maybe attack the dogs?

“No,” he said.  “Would carry off a pup perhaps but a grown dog is a bit too big.”

When I calmed down I looked buzzards up in our bird books.  They have a wing span of up to four feet and are slow and clumsy on take-off, though elegant and graceful once airborne.  A buzzard landing in our garden would struggle to get out again.  Reassured about the dogs, I began to worry about the other birds.  We wanted to put out food and were debating different types of stands or tables.  That would possibly make them handy snacks for a swooping buzzard so we put the idea aside to puzzle over later.

Like the move out, the move in was done in stages with Derek and his Merry Men shifting the bulk of our stuff on the Saturday.  We were saved once again by our friends.  These lovely people formed our “bubble” and set to with a will, opening the kitchen boxes and putting the china away in what cupboards we had ready.  Although we had weeded a lot of possessions there was still a huge amount.  The house – large by Irish standards – is about half the size of our Saltburn property and we were grateful for the “shed”.  All of the pictures and books went in there, still packed.  We focussed on the kitchen, finding bedding and clothes – oh, wonderful clothes!

We had labelled our boxes but the later “packing” done by the movers was rather more random.  In one load I found a black bin-liner full of shredded paper.  China was shoved into boxes barely wrapped.  We had bought mattress bags and sealed up some but those from our beds were not covered at all and needed extensive cleaning.  Some items were wrapped around with brown tape that damaged the surfaces and some were very badly scratched.  As Derek said on the first day – “They just f@@ked it in there”.

Along with the strange items we didn’t want were a lot of omissions.  My lovely writing table was missing, along with half the shelves.  Bottles of wine we labelled to leave for our buyer appeared but an equal number we wanted were gone.  And I’m not sure I fancy the stuff labelled “Wine from back shelving unit and kitchen bowels”.  It was a bit like Christmas – open a box and you didn’t know what you’d find.  There were moments where we stopped and looked around in total bewilderment.  What was all this stuff?  We did find the green boxes from the Pet Crematorium which made me smile – and almost cry with relief. Still, by the end of the day we had a functioning house, somewhere warm to sleep and a safe garden for the dogs. 

It felt as if we had actually arrived.  There was still a huge amount to do and we were still struggling to keep awake at times.  We had no television – not even the seven stations and two in Gaelic – and no internet connection.  We also had no radio signal for some reason.  Despite the fact we’d unpacked just a fraction of the stuff there was a huge pile of boxes to be flattened, stripped of tape and disposed of somehow.  So we waved our wonderful friends off and opened a rare bottle of Cava to go with a simple but delicious meal. 

We had made it.

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.

The Wonderful Kindness of Strangers

A lot of people have commented on these posts (thank you all!) and many have said how brave we have been.  Well, we don’t feel all that brave.  And we didn’t do it on our own either.  Throughout this whole “adventure” there have been people by our side.  Some are old friends.  Some are unexpectedly kind people who took a bit of time to help us on our way.  And some are strangers who met us and did something kind – just because.

When we left our home behind it was a shambles.  The movers arrived late, with no boxes, obviously expecting us to have packed everything despite us telling them this was not the case.  We drove away full of worries, not trusting these men to do their job.  With good reason as we found out much later.  The mess they made of the packing and the house was mitigated by three lovely friends.  For two whole days they helped sort and pack, throw out and clean.  The house wasn’t as we had wanted to leave it, mainly if not wholly due to the movers, but under the circumstances they performed miracles.  Thank you Lynn, Paul and Su!

One of our big worries had been how to access the house money in Ireland.  On the last day our bank card came through for the Irish account – two short hours before we had to leave.  The post was already slowed to a crawl by a combination of Covid restrictions and Christmas so this was another minor miracle.  Thank you Royal Mail!

The house sale was due to be finalized on the 12th , three days after we left, and we waited anxiously for news.  The move to Saltburn had been blighted when our purchasers in Somerset failed to complete, leaving us with two houses, two mortgages, a bridging loan and only one job between us.  Late in the evening our solicitor called us.  Apologising for the delay she confirmed all was signed and complete.  She added that the delay was down to the firm’s desire to send the funds that day.  The Sterling/Euro exchange rate was exceptionally volatile as a Brexit deal seemed less and less likely and they wanted to get the best deal they could for us.  When we checked the figures the next day they had saved us almost six thousand euro by staying late to complete the transfer.  Thank you Helen!

I know I have mentioned how cold the cottage was several times but this was a big issue for us.  The electric heaters ate power and were unable to heat the rooms to any great degree.  We relied on the open fire in the main room, struggling with bales of logs, pressed peat blocks and heavy sacks of coal from the shop opposite.  After a couple of visits the staff recognised us and asked us how long we were staying.  They were bemused and sympathetic when we said maybe all winter.  The cottages, they said, were rarely let out of season and notoriously chilly.  

They pointed us to special offers in fuel, told us which were the most efficient and helped us load up the car or carry bales across the road.  Over the weeks we told some of our story – cautiously at first – but there was never a trace of anti-English sentiment from anyone.   They were kind, sympathetic and genuinely shocked by some of our experiences.  They also had the best range of cakes I’ve ever come across and cake and a warm fire goes a long way to lifting the spirits. Thank you, Kennedy’s!

“Special Edition” unicorn cakes. Taste even better than they look!

Whilst out walking in the local park behind the cottages we met several local volunteers working on the community garden.  One man, Dennis, was delighted to meet a “real author lady”. He stopped work for twenty minutes to talk, much to the annoyance of his colleagues.  Two days later he turned up at the cottage hauling three huge feed sacks full of raw peat.  We looked at it very doubtfully – it looked like wheels of mud and not anything you could burn.  It was the best and hottest fuel ever, Dennis assured us heaving the bags inside.  And he was right.  The peat threw out amazing amounts of heat and smoldered all night.  He said it was his own authorized cutting, and he wouldn’t accept any payment.  Thank you Dennis!

Raw Peat – looks dubious but burns wonderfully!

And the next week, when the snow came, Patrick the on-site manager brought a sack of coal for us.  It was wrong, he said, what had happened.  Anything he could do – just ask.  Thank you Patrick!

So much kindness from so many people, many from strangers who have become friends.  We would probably have moved from Saltburn anyway without Covid and Brexit.  We had the best of it but needed a change (and outdoor space and fewer stairs) but we would have liked the choice.  A chance to do it properly without the panic and stress and time pressure.  Without taking a leap into the unknown.  In the end we managed it but we couldn’t have done it without the wonderful kindness of strangers.

Thank you all.

Christmas is a big deal in Ireland

We hadn’t expected much of a Christmas. We had moved in December and were mainly confined to our cottage but Christmas is a big deal in Ireland.  When we arrived on our first evening there were fairy lights around the Ingle nook.  We had scarcely got inside before our friends’ young daughter was demanding we decorate the tree.  Yes, the cottage provided a Christmas tree and a collection of red baubles with lots of pine cones.  It was only December 9th but I lacked the will to resist.  We decorated the tree.

Finding the two boxes of our own Christmas stuff in the store room (thank you Lynn!) meant we had no excuses. We had to “do” Christmas.  Our decorations are less designed and more eccentric than those supplied.  Some were purchased with our tiny budget in our first house, some inherited from parents and relatives and some given by friends returning from their travels.  We have a camel on our tree!  Most of them are old but along with the strings of battery powered lights they looked rather festive. 

The next week we looked out of the window to all of the cottages outlined in twinkling coloured lights, including ours.  Suddenly the dark nights were less depressing as we walked the dogs round the green.  It was still cold though, a deep hard cold that froze the grass and struck up through the stone floors.  There was a significant gap around the front door and most of those inside too. Jacqui found an old pillowcase and made a couple of draught excluders and we circled the furniture around the ever-burning fire. 

A second visit to the storage facility provided a few more DVDs,  extra rugs and dog bedding but no sign of my clothes.  I was walking around looking like a scarecrow (my own fault) and with so few clothes I needed to wash them often.  Unfortunately there was no dryer in the cottage, no laundry in the village and anything put on the line outside came back just as wet and half frozen too.  Resorting to the internet – reluctantly as there was no password on the wifi – Jacqui sourced a low-voltage drying rack.  She also persuaded me to order some new jeans.  I was reluctant as delivery was already patchy and signs of disruption apparent.  I am so glad I did as it was three months before we finally got into the storage boxes.

Much to our surprise we began to receive cards sent by friends and relatives to our new address.  It was such a lovely feeling, knowing they had thought of us and made the effort to keep in touch.  We could not go to the Post and had no access to stamps or cards but we have resolved to send cards next year.

Released from self-isolation a few days before Christmas we headed for the nearest town and picked up food for the festive season.  The oven in the cottage was small and rather temperamental but we were feeling more optimistic and wanted to make our first Irish Christmas memorable.  Our friends dropped round and we exchanged presents (from a safe distance) and we had each chosen a few gifts to bring with us.  With our tree, lights and cards and the fire blazing away the main room looked quite lovely.  The meal, cooked by Jacqui, was of course exquisite and we had some of our “saved from Saltburn” wine and a home-made pudding. 

That night we walked the dogs, the ground crunching under our feet.  It was very quiet. Only one other cottage was occupied and the pub and shop were closed. The future was still uncertain, we were desperately cold and I still had hardly anything to wear but it was Christmas.  We had made the journey, we were sheltered and fed and we’d even managed our own little celebration.   Looking up, my breath steaming in the cold air, I could see the Milky Way stretched overhead and for the first time in months I felt a sense of peace.

Yes, Christmas is a big deal in Ireland and this one was very special. 

You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

Joni Mitchell once sang “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” and I can vouch for the truth of that statement.  We finished our packing in a mad scramble and the car was mainly filled by us, the dogs and our bedding.  How Jacqui got a couple of cases, some books and a very old laptop in I don’t know but she did.  Oh and the gifts and cards from friends, some food for the next day and two bags containing a few things for Christmas.  Fortunately the car has extra strong suspension.  Otherwise we may have been stopped on suspicion of smuggling.

I had divided my clothes up into summer and winter, carefully labelling the winter box “This one first!”  I’d been wearing very old, raggedy clothes that I intended to discard on arrival so had a couple of pairs of jeans, three shirts with frayed collars and holes in them and two very sad jumpers.  Jacqui was much more organised and had (bless her) seen to the other essentials.  When we unpacked on the first morning I was so relieved to see socks and underwear in abundance. 

The plan was to arrange a very socially distanced trip to the storage facility and get our clothes and a few supplies when we felt strong enough.  The next few days were spent trying to keep warm as the cottage gradually thawed out a bit and sleeping but we were rather dismayed by the television.  Freeview in Ireland is a bit – limited.  Nine stations in all, two of them +1s so basically repeats.  One of them showing how to get something better with a satellite dish.  And two in Gaelic.

We had a small box of DVDs – 12 in total.  We had chosen 6 each and fortunately we approved of one another’s picks.  Unfortunately there was no DVD player in the television or anywhere else in the cottage.  We were very, very thankful for e-books which we had carefully downloaded onto our readers before leaving.  Doesn’t that show our sense of priorities?

After clearing our visit with Noel and Sheila at the storage place we loaded the dogs into the car and set off to find some clothes for me and the store cupboard for Jacqui.  We were greeted by a most distressed Sheila and a furious Noel who led us down the dim corridors to our locker – one of four, we were told.  Shocked by this news we tried to lift the shutter but it was jammed.  This was the cause of Noel’s anger – he was upset about damage to his lockers but also furious for us.  After struggling for nearly half an hour I managed to wriggle under the door and tried to free the shutter.  There were boxes thrown in seemingly at random with everything piled up and tipping over.  Furniture was wedged in at odd angles and boxes were split, spilling their contents across the heap.  Across the top were wedged the pictures, all packed and labelled “Keep Upright” “Do not stack”.  It was a car crash.

Of course, most of the boxes we did want were nowhere to be seen, in any of the lockers.  We found the store cupboard for the kitchen – boxes of baking essentials and spices, pasta, rice… We were still mentally stuck in Covid Land where these goods were hard to find.  In fact there was no panic buying in Ireland and no evidence of any shortages.  We took the store cupboard boxes anyway.

One locker was less than half full and we began to mine it for anything useful starting with a box of cables and – joy – a very old DVD player I thought I had left behind to be recycled.  The whole move seemed totally random with stuff we needed nowhere to be seen and stuff we didn’t want standing in plain view.  There were a few bits of furniture too, including a chest of drawers from our hall.  As I carried the boxes to the car Jacqui gave a shout of triumph behind me.  I turned and saw her flourish something black and something grey.  A hat, I realized.  A hat and a pair of gloves!  Oh I was so happy.  It was extremely cold and I had nothing but my dog-walking jacket to keep me warm.  Shoving my hands into the gloves and pulling on my woolly hat I felt better than I had for days.

We rode back to the cottage and unpacked, looking at the motley collection of spoils.  They included a five litre tub of olive oil, the DVD player (but no controller, of course), a fish kettle full of cutlery, some extra rugs to cover the chairs and beds and my wonderful hat and gloves.  Oh, and two plastic boxes filled with Christmas decorations.  I know it was Lynn who had made sure they were in the last load.  She had been determined that whatever happened, we would have Christmas.  So we set to and started to make our cold little cottage just a bit more homely.  It’s amazing what you can do with very little and you begin to appreciate every tiny thing.  Yes, Joni was right. 

You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

By the way, if anyone would like to follow the audio version, the first two episodes are available now (free of charge) on

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.