Where it’s at

We had a whole list of reasons for our off-island winter adventures. We wanted a break from the survival-quest which is winter in an off grid caravan on a Scottish island. Wet, windy, cold. Six hours of daylight, battling against a mud bath of a croft, going out to collect firewood and feed animals, staying in to wipe down walls and windows. After five winters we knew we had nothing left to learn – or prove – about what the darkest months of the year hold for us here.  Instead we wanted to have a proper family Christmas with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. We wanted to catch up with friends and dip our toes back into our old lives to see whether we really missed what we thought we might, plus how we’d feel about not being here on Rum.

We had three very different chunks of time while we were off. Working – and enjoying all of the rewards of working in Somerset. Doing stuff for someone else at someone else’s bidding but compensated richly for it. A return to our old lives back in Sussex including a visit to our old house, picking back up the threads of our previous social lives and family times. Then in complete contrast our two months in Ireland, time spent isolated from everyone where nobody knew our names or was likely to come knocking at the door.  None were perfect, all were perfectly nice. None lured us back or made us want to stay beyond the time we had planned to.

In returning to Rum we all definitely feel we have come ‘home’. There are aspects of our lives here which we know are unsustainable long term. More than ever perhaps our lives here feel finite in many ways. We arrived home to no water, rodent invasions. Since returning we are realising quite how much of a physical toll our lives here take on us after nearly four months break from it. Today the ferry bought us 11 bags of animal feed and compost – four wheelbarrow-loads to move from the closest place we can get a car to the feed bins on the croft. The ferry tomorrow is already cancelled due to the wind that is shaking the walls as I type. But none of this is news. None of this is intolerable, it is merely the compromise of life here, in much the same way as early mornings, traffic jams, Monday morning meetings, boilers breaking down are the compromises of other choices in ways to live your life. These are the compromises we are making in order to have the freedom, the views, the time that we have here. All things we missed when not here and all things we are prepared to put up with a lot of down sides to protect and enjoy.

So for now, certainly for as much as anyone really is able to have a long term plan we have settled on one that we think works for us. No more winters in the caravan. We don’t need to be off for as long as we were this past winter – probably two months would be sufficient to miss the worst of it. We don’t need to go as far away from here as we did this time either, indeed staying somewhere that we could return for visits would be preferable. We don’t need to have quite so many compromises as we do here – we have a lightweight washing machine on order along with a bigger solar panel to mean that laundry can all be done here on the Croft and Davies and Scarlett can have pretty much always on wifi. We’re looking at ways to put a porch space on the caravan with a re-roof over the top.

We have also been looking at the croft with a critical eye, working out what does bring in income, what does enhance our lives as in makes us happy or are things we enjoy doing. Our livestock holding is currently at nice manageable numbers in terms of animal feed. Our sheep are doing a great job of grazing the croft and we will get another three fleeces from them in the summer. Thanks to the very cold winter this years fleeces are looking fantastically thick and full. Also in my online order basket is a spinning wheel. A bit of an investment but something I am really excited about learning to do properly and something which should easily return the investment in wool from the 3 fleeces I already have from last year, the 3 we’ll get this year and the amount of wool that will give me either to sell or to make things with to sell.

Our chickens and ducks have always enjoyed a very wide free ranging life but it has meant that our egg collecting is way tougher than it could be, with most of the eggs feeding the crows. We currently have the ducks penned in our soft fruit cage, primarily as we are re-educating them that they live here on the Croft after a winter spent down in the village. They are also doing a great job of clearing all the grass and weeds around the currently dormant fruit trees and bushes and eating all the bugs, slugs and moths that can damage the trees later in the year. We’re collecting the eggs they lay too. We will let them back out once the weather dries up so they can swim on the river but may well create a penned area for them to be put away in at night so we can still collect the eggs.

The chickens are free ranging at the moment but after a managerial style walk around the croft yesterday with virtual clipboards Ady and I decided that our walled garden of raised beds is never going to perform well for us with crops until we improve the soil in there. Every year I do really well with getting seeds germinated and growing in the polytunnel and then I plant them out into the raised beds and they fail to thrive despite watering, feeding and weeding. This year we won’t even try – we will pen the chickens in that area and they can forage and scratch all the weeds out for us, then we can add a mulch of their manure-rich bedding on the beds covered with a hefty layer of seaweed from the beach and leave the whole lot to rot down nicely for next year. Meanwhile we will be able to collect all of the hens eggs too, bolstering our eggs sales and reducing our feed bill, while improving the ground ready for next year. We will concentrate on the large areas we have given over to strawberries and soft fruit and use the polytunnel and mini greenhouses to grow herbs, salad, tomatoes and peas.

I have moved things around and added some of the crafts I had worked on over the winter off into the shed. We have ordered some bits and pieces for other crafty ideas we have to make and sell and Ady is working on some more photography for postcards. I have at least one off-island outlet for selling my jams, an online shop for selling my crafts and a plan to work more on expanding both of those.

Davies has transferred his study with the Open University from an access course to a BSc degree in Psychology with the credits from what he has already studied going towards that. He has a choice in how fast or slow he takes that studying depending on what else he does with his time. He is considering a variety of other pursuits including some work experience, some travelling, following his other interests in art and film making and still has the option of looking at a bricks and mortar university at some future point should he decide he wants part of that uni experience after all. But for now he has a clear plan, with lots of interesting, exciting and challenging options ahead of him. The part time study since the autumn has shown him what he is most interested in, confirmed the areas he thought he wanted to learn more about and highlighted for him the skills he needs to invest more time and energy into improving.

Scarlett is really pleased to be back on Rum. She is still working out quite which direction to throw her energy in, but has many possible options she is exploring and in the meantime we are all getting to eat a lot of delicious and beautifully decorated cupcakes as she hones that particular interest and skill.

At the end of our virtual clipboard croft walk Ady and I sat on our favourite bench looking our over our favourite view with the last cup of tea of the day. A plan, a feeling of contentment and enough of a streak of uncertainty and adventures still to be had makes for a pretty good combination as far as I’m concerned.

Settling back in.

It’s a week today that we got back into the caravan. In that week we have:
* Had a delivery from the local Co-Op who will take orders by email and stick them on the ferry for the Small Isles residents (we were supposed to be popping back off again for a couple of nights today for a dentist check up for Scarlett but I couldn’t get a sensibly priced hotel, the weather is looking iffy for us getting back next Tuesday and so we rearranged it for a few weeks time, but we had anticipated that follow up trip off and put off stocking up from the supermarket in our already overloaded car.)
* Sent off an empty jerry can of diesel and had it refilled and sent back by the fuel merchants.
* Filled up water containers from the river until the cold water worked again, done plumbing repairs and finally got the hot water working again, meaning we could all have showers.
* Felled trees and chopped firewood including getting the chainsaw stuck and getting it unstuck again.
* Got the wandering ducks home. During the winter our ducks had left the croft and joined some of our rehomed chickens down in the village. Ady managed to recover a few each day and all the girls were home but the drake remained in the village, shrewd to Ady’s efforts to catch him. This morning he went to try again but couldn’t find him anywhere. When he returned to the croft (a mile away and up-river from the village) there was the drake hanging around outside the cage where the girl ducks all were. He was only too pleased to be ushered into the cage.
* Welcomed the turkeys back to the Croft. Our friends who looked after them while we were away bought them home today. They seemed pretty happy to be back and got straight back into joining in with the feeding time frenzy.
* Baked cakes (Scarlett), and bread, made soup.
* Carried on with studying (Davies and I), working on our third assessment which is due in a couple of weeks.
* Fixed the wind turbine which we had taken down for the winter but also planned to give a bit of an overhaul to. The plastic is brittle and broken in various places and we had been doing in situ fixes with strong tape and metal bracing plates. When we took it down we decided we would do a proper fix and re-enforcing job on it before we put it back up. Ady had been doing lots of research on the best way to do this over the winter and so we removed all the tape, unscrewed all the brace plates, drilled holes and ‘stitched’ the broken sections back together with cable ties. Then we put it back up and reconnected it. So far it is working really well and is turning much more smoothly than before.
* Had our first visitors to the Croft – Rum friends, visiting friends and a photographer who was on the island taking pictures and chatting to islanders about a book he is working on. He spent a couple of hours with us taking photos and chatting about our lives here and his own life.
* Fixed the gate which had dropped on it’s hinges, fixed the netting on the fruit cage, fixed a flat tyre on the Jeep.
* Started getting the shed ready to reopen for the season. Labelling and pricing the new stock I’ve been working on while we’ve been away, freshening up the layout, looking at some new ways to display things and generally tidying up.
* Organised to send some more stock of jams to a mainland supplier who is also getting ready for the start of her season.
* Caught up on all the many loads of laundry that we bought back with us, had left behind, created in the clean up of the caravan and have made by being back a week. Next week we’re ordering a twin tub machine which will run off the genny and we will be able to have up here on the croft.


Be it ever so humble….

It’s almost as if we’d never been away.

Just as when we first arrived on Rum (and countless times since to be honest) the grand return was not entirely straightforward. We had arranged a lift for Ady, Kira and I along with the essential first night back stuff to the bottom of the croft. Davies, Scarlett and Bonnie walked from the pier.

We arrived back on a stunningly beautiful Rum day. It was blue skies and sunshine, ice twinkling everywhere and uncharacteristically rock hard ground. It was also bitterly, bitterly cold. The first glimpse of the island from the ferry followed by welcome home hugs from friends and balloons tied to the Shed echoing the sentiment were enough to have me feeling happy of heart.

We fed the chickens, geese and sheep who were very happy to see us and walked up the hill carrying the first of many loads back up.

The first step inside the caravan was not quite so pretty or poetic. We were not alone. Unfortunately in our absence some other creatures had decided to make use of the space and we had been invaded by a pair of rats. This was always a very real possibility, Rum has a big population of rats with very few natural predators and plenty of food in the way of bird eggs, dead deer and so on. Our presence on the croft has both attracted rats with bird feed and crops and repelled them with Bonnie, Kira and our careful monitoring of them with occasional intervention by way of rat bait. With us gone for nearly 4 months the deterrents were absent and all of the lures still present.

Despite anticipating rats and taking action to prevent them it was still unpleasant to discover we had failed and they had got in. Their entry route was gnawing through the plastic (why?!) grille that covers the vent to the fridge. They had then gone through the cavity behind the fridge into the cupboard under the sink. This had netted them the delights of chewing through the plastic container holding some sweet chilli sauce, four water jug filters and the labels on some tins of tuna which was all that was under the sink (aside from pots and pans). They had accessed the cutlery drawer from behind and chewed through the soft rubber grips on the potato peeler and the tin opener, had a good chew on a wooden spoon and the cutlery divider I had lovingly created out of wood when we first moved here. (The spoon and cutlery divider provided firewood, the tin opener and potato peeler have been sterilised and are now back in use as a reminder of ‘that time rats got in’. I can confirm that the presence of soft grip rubber does make them nicer to use than the chewed remains of harder plastic below, but not sufficiently to replace them). They had finally decided the party was over inside the cupboard and gotten out by chewing a small hole through the side out into the main caravan. There they had feasted on a tin of hot chocolate powder entering via the plastic lid and a tub of mixed nuts and raisins. There is no evidence of them getting into the bedrooms but the following day while cleaning the bathroom I found a single tube of toothpaste with a hole gnawed through. Thus proving that even rats recognise the importance of good dental hygiene after a feast like that!

It was pretty dire to come back to but we had cleared up the damage within an hour, dealt with one rat who was still at the crime scene hanging out in the cupboard and shortly afterwards Bonnie found it’s partner and dealt with that too. The plastic grille has been replaced with a metal one, all evidence of rats (other than souvenir kitchen utensils) have gone and all visitors to the caravan now are of the welcome variety.

The next challenge was three months worth of damp to deal with. Again this was anticipated and we had done what we could to mitigate the impact and brought back with us suitable cleaning materials to deal with it, along with brand new pillows, duvets, sheets and covers as we knew that these would be the likely casualties. Sure enough we had a days worth of wiping down walls and surfaces with mould cleaner and killer spray, a trip to the skip to dispose of mouldy bedding and a day of heating and airing the space. We are still in condensation and damp season, and living, cooking and breathing in the space only adds to the problem but at least we are now back to wipe down, air and heat the space again. Dehumidifiers are the obvious answer but power constraints mean they are not an option for us here.

The rats and the mould were semi expected issues. We knew they may be something we faced on our return and we had come back prepared to deal with them. What we did not expect was sub zero temperatures meaning that our water supply was frozen. We have had no water at least once or twice most of the winters here and usually anticipate it happening the morning after a very cold night and ensure we have a kettle or pan filled ready for that first morning cup of tea knowing it will have thawed out and be running again by lunchtime. In the early days we even had our bottled gas freeze but a cabinet for the gas and lagging the bottles seems to have alleviated that issue even in these very cold days. The water was a different story though as not only had the pipes frozen as the ground was frozen but the actual water supply in the river was also frozen solid. The waterfalls, rivers and ground were all rock hard.

This meant that both the clean up operation in order to make the caravan liveable plus the actual liveable-ness of being in the caravan was impossible. A quick family conference, taking in the implications of no water for cooking, washing, drinking or flushing the loo meant we all agreed that staying a night or two elsewhere while we got the caravan back into order was probably the best plan. So while Davies and Scarlett enjoyed a slightly prolonged dose of mainland delights of power and internet and slept off the journey, Bonnie and Kira moved back into the caravan / Croft with freedom to roam once more and rat prevention duties and Ady and I spent a couple of days blasting out music, getting a new cowl fitted onto the log burner so we could get that lit, unpacking the car and getting everything up to the caravan and put away, everything cleaned and organised and turned back on. After two nights away we were still without water but had collected sufficient to keep just outside the caravan and mean filling the loo cistern with a watering can and boiling pans to wash up with enabled us to move back in and sleep in our own beds again. The following day we had a trickle of water running once more and two days after that the big thaw has happened and we have hot water once more and today had our first showers back in the caravan. For a few days it was a return to our early days here though, walking over to the river countless times each day with containers to fill up with water.

That concludes the ‘getting the caravan back to normal’ task list and we have started moving onto the next phase of picking our lives back up again. Today this meant gathering ducks who decided over Christmas to migrate down to the village. There were 10 ducks hanging out down there, now there are four and six birds back up on the Croft captured in a pen while they are re-educated that this is where they live and get fed. Hopefully the remaining four will be gathered up tomorrow and the pair of turkeys who were also rehomed down in the village with friends will be coming home again too this week. Our livestock holding is depleted to what we had last year which is precisely what we wanted – less creatures, more efficiency.

The freezing conditions mean there is no urgency with crops just yet but it is only a matter of weeks until the ferry timetable changes to the summer schedule and with that will come the first of the seasons visitors so guiding people to the shed and making sure there is an attractive selection of items to buy will be next on the list of jobs to turn our attention towards.

As I said, it feels almost as though we’ve never been away.

Returning to Rum

All of life is a journey, so they say. Certainly the last four months of our life have provided some fairly epic journeys. Both the path of discovery type journey but also the travelling around the place, by ferry and car, laden with belongings, cat and dog.

Our first trip from Rum to Sussex way back in November was a long one. The ferry away from Rum only happens in the late afternoon meaning onward travel is always pushing late into the day. It was already dark by the time we left Scotland and we still had the full length of England to travel, which mean the trip spanned two days, arriving in the early hours of the following day.

Our trips between Sussex and Somerset were a breeze in comparison, despite our maverick sat nav and the quality of rural Somerset’s B roads.

We left Sussex and headed for Wales on the eve of Storm Eleanor in January. That was not a bad trip and we broke it with a visit to friends. It felt like a departure from our usual ‘Get in the car and drive ’til morning’ roadtrips with it’s sensible planning and sociable travel times.

Of course that was all scuppered by the onward section of the trip the following day when a carefully planned ferry trip followed by a drive to arrive at a very respectable 5pm, travelling through an unknown country on unfamiliar roads in daylight didn’t quite go to plan. Cancelled and delayed ferries meant our intended midday sailing actually happened at 11pm after we had sat in the queue at the ferry terminal all day and all evening. The Bureau de change on board was closed so we had to divert past the toll roads in Dublin as we had no euros (little realising we could pay by card and unprepared to chance being turned away and adding yet more distance and time to our travels). We finally arrived at the destination of our rented house in Ireland at 5am.

So to the final leg of our winter off island adventure – the return to Rum. Earlier than planned but the start of meteorological spring – March 1st. Attempting to avoid two overnight stop overs – expensive and stressful for the cat and the dog we decided to time most of our driving for daylight hours with the ferry crossing through the night and time spent waiting at the port for the ferry for sleeping. We knew it would be compromising a full night’s sleep for Ady and I (teens are largely nocturnal and good at in car sleeping anyway) but it seemed the best plan.

At 4pm we left County Mayo.

By 9pm we were back spending sterling instead of euros on breakfast-y food for the following morning and fast food for dinner.

The intended plan was a few hours sleep in the cosy car before boarding the 4am ferry. The reality was news reports on the radio urging no non-essential travelling, friends contacting us offering beds for the night and a safe space to stay on both sides of the Irish sea and a distinctly un-cosy car despite blankets and body heat of six creatures thanks to a plummeting temperature outside. We decided that we would have more options on the mainland than in Ireland and managed to arrange to board the earlier midnight ferry crossing. The ‘Beast from the East’ was on it’s way and despite seeing no sign of bad weather other than speedily decreasing temperatures even us experienced traveller types were starting to believe the hype.

The crossing was smooth and straightforward – well done P&O ferries, you impressed us much more than your further south competition Irish Ferries had done a few months earlier (I did complain and have vouchers I can redeem against my next -unlikely to happen – travel with them!). As we headed north through Scotland we did begin to see increasing signs of bad weather and then suddenly we hit the outskirts of Glasgow around 4am with a handful of vehicles on the roads, neon signs flashing the message ‘avoid road travel’ and terrifying road conditions.

We discussed our various options – driving along at 20mph, stopping every few minutes to douse the windscreen in water as the washer bottle had frozen despite being almost neat concentrated screenwash – we could push on, driving carefully, we could try and find a hotel which would accept the cat and dog although we were aware that this was merely the forecast start of the bad weather so we may well be stuck there for a few days if we stopped. We agreed to carry on and keep re-assessing. It was a fairly fraught and pretty scary hour or so.

Once we crossed the Erskine Bridge we stopped for fuel, checked the tyres, got some more water and checked the travel advice on various websites and decided to carry on. It turned out that the road alongside Loch Lomond was pretty much clear, although it was snowing quite heavily as we were driving which meant we could not have full headlights on as it was like being in a trippy snowglobe with all the snow rushing towards us. The snow gates through Glen Coe were also open and the outside temperature went down to minus 7 and we struggled to keep the inside of the car warm despite the heater being on full. Dawn broke as we drove through the mountains with frozen lochs and waterfalls on either side of us.

We finally arrived in Fort William just after 8am. Ady and I went into McDonalds for tea, coffee and breakfast leaving the snoozing teens and animals in our previously blue, currently almost white from the snow and grit off the roads car.

We did then indeed park up and have a bit of a snooze in the car before checking into our travelodge at midday. Some of us slept some more, some had a shower, some just enjoyed being able to stretch out after all those hours in the car. We had a final (very early for us) meal and got an early night.

The following day was the final bit of the trek. Ady and Davies took the car with the cat and dog and a final supermarket shop of fresh food to bring back with us. Scarlett and I caught the train. We met at the ferry point and 90 minutes later the ferry pulled in to Rum.

The sun was shining. Ady drove the car off and parked it up – it’s done us proud. Friends greeted us and so the latest bout of wandering came to a close.