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Things I’m glad I learned from the Open University

There is a lot of snobbery around education – inverted snobbery from the “University of Life” people and academic snobbery that still maintains Open is not a “real” university.  I’m a proud graduate and have also taught for them and I have found a lot of useful stuff I learned has come back to help these last few months.  This whole experience is quite a bit out of my comfort zone.  I’m a writer and researcher but I’ve found myself planning, designing, gardening, repairing and even exterminating rodents.  It is physically exhausting at times though also oddly exhilarating. In a strange way it seems to have added even more purpose to our lives.

I studied a whole range of things at the Open University, from science and technology to discourse analysis.  It constantly surprises me how useful a lot of this is.  Take the science foundation course for example.  I know how to measure and test a substance and so have established the hardness of the water from the well.  Very hard actually –from 185 to 130 ppm.  It will fur up a kettle in 36 hours unless treated.  Enter basic maths, used for science and statistics, and I can calculate the volume and frequency of salt tablets needed.  Hurrah for our hair!

Hard water!

Trigonometry is often regarded as useless in everyday life but not so for me.  We need a backing wall for solar panels, set at 30o and standing on a concrete base.  Out came the drawing instruments and calculator to work out the dimensions, height, number of blocks needed, foundation depth and cost of materials.  Hooray for technical drawing skills acquired in the “History of Modern Architecture” course!   

There is a strange quirk amongst builders in Ireland to add “Mediterranean” features to their houses.  A friend said it was often a desire to recall holidays in warmer climes.  Well, there are numerous wide porches with Spanish style wide arches around, attached to a remodelled traditional cottage.  These look a bit odd at first but not too bad.  After all, a deep porch can keep out winter storms as well as scorching sun.  What I find deeply annoying is the use of pillars across the front of houses.  Plastic or plaster columns holding up only one corner of a porch.  Or lined up in front, just – there, supporting nothing (or maybe something invisible).   And it is wrong, very wrong, to have Doric columns with Ionic or (worst of all) Corinthian capitals.  I can put my discomfort at that sight down to the Open University courses in Ancient History.

When we arrived at the house there were curtains up, left by our kind vendors until we could get our own.  As we have dogs that wake at daybreak it was necessary to get something as lightproof as possible.  We puzzled over the best way to achieve this, with a range of windows all different sizes and shapes.  Then I remembered something from studying theatre lighting many years ago and formalized by the Open University science course.  Combining all three primary colours (red, blue and yellow) eliminates most frequencies of light making an effective blackout.  Jacqui was astonished as the drapes were only silk weight but took me at my word.  She got out the trusty sewing machine to make green curtains with red linings and it worked!

All of these scraps of theoretical knowledge garnered over a number of disciplines have had real, practical applications.  My varied (some would say eccentric) education has been invaluable as we settle in and make a new home but the most important lessons are less tangible.  My music courses taught me to listen – really listen, not just hear things.  Standing in the wood I can identify a dozen different birds at one time.  I can hear the sudden burst of rain as it rushes up the lane and get inside.  We know the rats are gone from the house otherwise we would hear their nasty, scaly feet scrabbling through the ceilings.

The other great lesson from the Open University is patience.  If you are going to be successful you can’t start looking too far ahead.  Faced with a pile of books, essays to write, an exam looming and the thought of at least six more years it is too easy to give up.  I learnt to focus on one course, one task at a time.  The overgrown bay beside the road, for example, is now filled with rich top soil and some of the abandoned rocks.  One afternoon we clipped the ivy and it will die and wither away.  Then Jacqui began planting, using flowers she grew from seed back in March.  We will add bulbs in the autumn and bee-bombs in the next few weeks.  Next year we will see it all burst into life.

The first phase of the little garden

It is like the old saying – “How do you eat an elephant?”  Answer – “One bite at a time”.  We have an elephant here and one that keeps on growing.  But the wood clearance, partial as it was, revealed a stand of young oak trees.  That is such a wonderful find, previously hidden and choked almost to death.  Each tree is being cleared and is recovering and then we will move on to the next tree, and the next.  If we focus on just one at a time we will suddenly find ourselves on the other side, all finished.

It may take us six years but we will be as proud of this as anything we have done. 

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.

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.