Homecoming

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.

Bad, Good, Learned this winter

Thursday March 1st heralds the meteorological start of spring 2018. It also heralds our return to Rum, the end of our winter adventure off the island.

Or at least it should do, assuming all of our planned elements of the epic journey back there fall into place. Between now and then much lies ahead with much potential for veering off the path. There are two ferry trips, hours of driving and hundreds of miles of car travel in an aged vehicle packed with people, animals and ‘stuff’. So uncertainty and no guarantees but a plan at least.

Once we get there further uncertainty lies ahead – how will the caravan and croft have fared in our absence? How will we feel once we are back? Will we have come home or will it feel like somewhere we have already left behind and used to live but don’t any more? It’s a whole load of questions and a whole load of emotions just now. Hopefully the answers will reveal themselves to us over the coming weeks and months. We have some idea of what we think we want to do next but there is a lot more talking, planning and working things out before we hatch a plan for that.

For now though, the coming few days will be action packed, hopefully smooth and without too much adventure and as the chapter of our winter off draws to a close and spring arrives we’ve been reflecting on what the last three and a half months have taught us.

Ady:

Bad:
* A feeling of purposelessness. In Glastonbury I knew what I was doing things for but for much of the rest of the time we’ve been off I have felt at a loose end and without a plan.
* The distractions of the mainland and Ireland have meant that I have felt we have not been as much of a close family unit.
* The expense of the last few months. We have spent a lot of money, some of which has been on things which we could have provided ourselves on Rum – eg heating when on Rum we can cut down our own firewood, or power when on Rum we have wind turbine and solar energy for free.
* It’s been quite lonely in Ireland as we know no one.
* I have fretted a lot about the car, not having a reliable vehicle plays on my mind.

Good:
* All the mod cons. It’s been a nice break not dealing with emptying the toilet, getting gas bottles or jerry cans of fuel up the hill. Flicking switches and flushing levers without worrying about how things are getting to me or where they are going is quite the novelty!
* I’ve enjoyed the retail therapy on the mainland and here in Ireland.
* Christmas was exactly as I had hoped it would be with family.
* I really enjoyed feeling part of things in Glastonbury. It reminded me of happy times being part of a work team and the good bits of my old mainland life being part of things like opening the farm shop and going to the staff Christmas party.
* In bad weather – and we have experienced some, particularly in Ireland – it’s been nice to be in a house unaffected by it.

Learnt:
* I already knew but spending time at Glastonbury with a very ordered regime of animal husbandry bought home to me how inefficient we were towards the end on Rum. Rigid control of livestock numbers, planned breeds and strict feeding is essential to make sure you are not just running an animal sanctuary.
* Cooking on a range or in a clay oven is a whole new experience.
* I had not appreciated just how much of a border and difference there is between Ireland and the UK. Having lived in Scotland for the last 6 years as an English person I was aware of divides but I’ve always really thought of Ireland as part of the UK and getting to grips with the different currency, road speeds and even things like not getting BBC radio has been a learning curve.
* I have learnt that Rum could actually be a long term prospect for us but that our current living conditions in the caravan, particularly over winters are not forever and that if we are going to make Rum work for us we need to find a way to work that out.
* I have realised that for all the down sides of island life and the frustrations of island politics I really missed Rum and our life there. I understand how valuable being part of a community is and how much that means to me.

Scarlett:

Bad:
* The water tastes horrible everywhere. I miss our Rum river water.
* I really missed Rum.
* Bonnie and Kira really didn’t enjoy most of the time off this winter.
* We have had loads of car travel which I really don’t like.
* The ferry travel to Ireland was a really long and miserable experience.

Good:

* Spending time with friends and family.
* I’ve enjoyed the access to fast food.
* The unrestricted internet and power. (not entirely unrestricted internet here in Ireland)
* Bristol zoo for my birthday was a real highlight.
* Horse riding at Glastonbury was really good.

Learnt:
* I like sushi! I’ve never had it before and I really like it.
* I learnt lots of facts about the Titanic.
* How to play draughts.
* I learnt quite a lot of family history and stories from spending time with my granddad over Christmas, hearing about his childhood and stories about his parents.
* I’ve had quite a bit of independence while we’ve been off and learned about doing stuff on my own on the mainland.

Davies:
Bad:

* I anticipated unlimited internet but we have not had that here in Ireland.
* The house here in Mayo is pretty remote – it’s not walking distance to anywhere so I can’t just go into town.
* I don’t think I had as many opportunities to socialise as I would have liked.
* I have had time spent doing things like walks or going round shops which are boring and pretty pointless.
* I’ve had two colds while I’ve been off. The second one particularly was really nasty and I felt rubbish for ages.

Good:

* It was good to spend time with family and friends.
* I’ve had more time online than I get on Rum.
* I’ve improved my drawing as I’ve spent quite a bit of time doing it.
* I got an X box and a TV and enjoyed time spent playing games or watching stuff.
* I’ve enjoyed the family draughts tournament.

Learnt:

* Going back to Sussex and Glastonbury as an older person and seeing what has changed and what has stayed the same.
* I’ve had a lot of chance to watch and downloads stuff and have really learned what I like in terms of genre, plots and types of shows. It’s felt like research for my own stories and ideas for making videos too.
* I’ve learnt about different friendships and how some endure and some do not.
* It’s been really interesting watching a much bigger society or community in action and seeing how people operate and social etiquette when people are strangers.

Nic
Bad:

* The travelling. The car journeys have been long, uncomfortable and a bit fraught at times worrying about whether the car will make it. I love the UK and enjoy exploring it but sitting on motorways in traffic jams in a cramped car for hours and hours has felt like a real endurance test. Our ferry trip here to Ireland was overnight with no chance of seeing any wildlife and with a long and tedious day spent in the car before as we waited for the ferry to run and a long and anxious drive afterwards with no sleep.
* I have felt really guilty at times about Kira and Bonnie. On balance I know that they have been happier to be with us than to have been left behind on Rum but the travelling, the keeping them contained after their usual endless freedom and the times when they have had to put up with intrusions into their space. The four of us have made choices which have led us to our decisions and have been able to talk about, rationalise and balance out the highs and lows. The cat and dog have had no such luxury.
* The famine or feast quality to our time off. We have either had full on socialising or weeks of seeing nobody. It would have been good to have been able to spread it out more.
* The disconnect with the outside world and the unhealthier lifestyle we have led. We have all eaten more junk, sat around a whole lot more and not used our bodies as we usually do. There has been driving instead of walking, processed food instead of cooking from scratch, sitting and reading rather than carrying things up the hill or being out chopping firewood. 3 months is not that long and I am confident that a few months hard slog back on the croft will sort that out but I definitely feel pretty slothful after a winter off.

Good:
* We spent a winter off Rum. All of the challenging bits of caravan / island life that make December, January and February really long, difficult weeks and months to get through have gone. Usually I feel as though we stagger out of the winter desperate for the spring but exhausted from the effort of surviving the harshest time of year.
* It was so lovely to spend time with friends, many of whom we have not seen for several years. It was lovely to have friends and family to visit us without having to make the epic trip to Rum and to do things like meeting someone for lunch, going out for dinner or having tea and cake in a cafe.
* I am definitely an adventurer at heart and it’s been really fun to be able to head off on jaunts and day trips, make snap decisions about what to do next and be a bit reckless. After five years of pretty much staying in one place it has been wonderful to add a whole list of new experiences, memories and photos of things we have done.
* It’s been really heartening to watch Davies and Scarlett enjoy the winter off, slot in at times while remaining true to themselves as individuals and be able to translate the independence and capability they both have as young adults on Rum with all that entails to being able young people in other settings. As a Home Educating parent, with children who moved from a fairly conventional life aged 7 and 9 to travel and then live on a remote island I have wondered quite what it would mean as and when they wanted or needed to step back into a more mainstream life. While they are still undeniably them with their own ways I can see that their unusual childhood has not done them some dreadful disservice.

Learnt:
* I honestly felt that having lived a conventional life and then very deliberately having chosen to live an alternative one meant I knew the differences between the two options and how they compared. But there were things I hankered after or missed from our old lives and this winter was an opportunity to have them back. I am very specifically thinking about things like the washing machine or bath, access to shops and other resources, proximity to family and friends. I thought that I had done my fill of spending a half day totted up each week walking up and down to the village to collect things from the freezer, of spending a day a week processing laundry. Sure enough the novelty of daily baths, bunging a load of laundry on and pressing the button before I went to bed and waking up to a clean load, then popping across to the tumble drier and pressing another button for dry clothes if the weather was not suitable for outdoor drying were great. But at a price! I realised that the reality of laundry is that it *does* cost you a day a week regardless of your life. It can either cost you a day a week in processing it, walking up and down the croft, waiting around for it to be done, hanging it out and hoping for dry weather or it can cost you a day of working to earn enough money to buy a washing machine and pay to live in a property with power and water with the associated bills to cover those costs and a space for a washing machine indoors and maybe a tumble drier too. These are known as modern conveniences for a reason and often they are not actually saving us time, rather robbing us of it. I was reminded anew, or maybe re-educated about the choices I had made, why I had made them and spent a lot of time considering whether those were still my favoured choices or if I wanted to change the deal.
*I learned what I missed about Rum – the view, the freedom, the people. It’s funny that these were the very things which led us to choose our life on Rum – somewhere beautiful, somewhere with a sense of community and somewhere we can have freedom to spend our time the way we choose. It’s been really healthy to have those desires tested and see if they are still of prime importance to me. And they are.
*I’ve learned how much I have changed. Spending time with family and friends, sitting back in the scenes of my old life was like being taken back by one of Dickens’ ghosts of Nicola’s past. In just the last couple of weeks on Ireland we visited a place we had been to 14 years previously and I was so taken with the landscape I bored the other three taking photos and commenting on it. I couldn’t believe that we had driven that exact route years before and I had no recollection of how remarkable it was. It made me realise how much having children, Home Educating and the life choices we have made in the last decade have changed and shaped me and opened my eyes to the world around me.
*I’ve learned some new skills, some new approaches to things and had some new ideas about various things from business ideas, craft projects, ideas for the croft. We’ve spent many hours talking this winter in various combinations of the four of us. Talking about next life steps for Davies and Scarlett, about next life steps for Ady and I. About ambitions and aspirations – both solo and collective. I guess these are not really learned until they have been fully formed and put into practise but it has felt like a period of real exploration and consideration.

So, some duplication in things we’ve considered good or bad or learned, some bits some of us found highlights while others found challenging. We left Rum behind for the winter to avoid the worst time of year there, to have a really good catch up with beloved and much missed family and friends and to get some perspective away from our life to reflect on what we wanted to do next. We definitely achieved all of those objectives and we’re looking forward to seeing what impact the ripples moving out from the last few months will be. Stick with us, I suspect there will be more of the same to come.

English people from Scotland in Ireland

We continue to confuse people when they ask where we are visiting from…

It’s been a gorgeously sunny day here today. We’ve had daffodils in bloom, buds peeping through the soil and birds starting to sing on and off for a couple of weeks but today was warm, sunny and most definitely spring-like.

So we decided to visit the Cliffs of Moher. It had been recommended to us by several people and searching online for tourist-y things to do while in Ireland always brings it up. I’d also found details of The Burren and knew we’d be driving through that area too.

Along the way we caught sight of a very tall structure that looked almost like a space rocket so pulled off the road to take a closer look. It turned out to be the round tower at the monastery of Kilmacduagh so we had a wander around there, looking at the buildings and reading the gravestones.

We arrived at the Cliffs just after midday and had a lovely couple of hours wandering around there, mostly outside along the actual cliff edges (not as near as some of the visitors who were taking their life into their hands in pursuits of ever more daring photos. We were very sensible with our safety, if not our poses!) but also a look around the visitor centre including watching the video showing a gannet swooping around the cliff faces before diving into the water and swimming with dolphins, seals, whales, basking sharks and other sealife, then resurfacing and joining the other seabirds in flight and on nests including puffins and gulls. We saw mostly crows and gulls in real life. For a Tuesday in February it was very busy, I can only imagine how packed it must being during the tourist season in the summer. We downloaded the app to listen to the audio tour and had to correct our original proclamation to Scarlett that the next land was America when she claimed to be able to see it and we realised that actually Arran was rather nearer that New York!

On the way in we had driven past signs for Aillwee Cave. 14 years ago, back in 2004 we came to Ireland for a 3 or 4 night stay. It was not a great trip; our car was broken into and all of our stuff was stolen and our ferry home was cancelled due to a ferry strike meaning we ended up on a much longer, later ferry with two toddlers, getting home around 3am with a bin bag taped over the broken car window. But we did have some good times while we were here including a visit to Blarney castle to kiss the stone, a day at Bunratty village, an open topped bus tour around Dublin and a visit to Aillwee Cave. None of us had much memory of the cave itself (Davies as 3 and Scarlett was 1 so they are excused!) but we do recall buying Davies a little torch in the gift shop which he promptly lost. We looked everywhere for it and assumed he had dropped it. Back in England when tidying out the car after the new window was fitted we found the torch. It must have been in his pushchair and fallen out when we folded it up to put it in the boot. That torch was in the toy box in the playroom for years and years and may even still be in the small amount of stuff we have stored. So we had to visit the cave on the way back today, if only to see if they still sold the torches.

They don’t.

But the cave tour was really good. All the usual stalactites and stalagmites, weird and wonderful rock formations, the tour guide turning off all the lights for complete darkness, the amazing acoustics of being metres and metres underground.

I have no photos but the drive there and back was stunning. On the way we passed feral goats grazing on the Burren, loads of cattle with calves and sheep with lambs and the strange landscape of rocks, the big flat paving slab like formations which look like giant jigsaw puzzle pieces and the miles of grey which looks like a moon landing video clip or as though all the colour has been removed from your view leaving just black and white and shades of grey. On the way back the sun was setting after a glorious day of weather so we had pink skies streaked with orange above the grey. We got home just as it was getting dark but saw a huge murmuration of starlings in the distance and a smaller but closer group (murder) of crows flying in much the same way which I’ve never seen before. There are masses of crows here, I’ve never seen so many.

All of the natural beauty and wonder of Ireland today for sure.

A trip back to the UK

Not mainland UK though – Northern Ireland.

Last week we had a lovely four nights staying with our friends in Northern Ireland. Scarlett and I had visited before, last spring, but it was Ady and Davies’ first time there. It’s a nice easy drive from where we are staying in County Mayo. Our friends were at school / work on Friday afternoon when we headed north so we took the opportunity to head into Belfast first and visit Titanic Belfast Scarlett and I had spotted it and heard a little about it last year so it was on our list of things to do.

The drive was slightly longer than we’d planned, mostly due to snow and ice on the roads at the start of the journey meaning a slower travel time but we had just over two hours and were there before the latest admission time. I would definitely recommend longer though – we saw everything but as (almost) proper grown ups Ady and I would have lingered longer over all the many interpretation and signs and read everything. You can see why it won 2016s world’s leading tourist attraction. Telling a story that everyone knows at least one version or retelling of in the very place it all started – right where the ship was built. An excellent mix of interactive displays, recordings, artefacts and more. I’m at risk of sounding like a tripadvisor review so I’ll stop but if you are anywhere near Belfast and have three or four hours I would highly recommend adding this to your itinery. Along with the many, many other things to do in the city.

Ady and I did a city bus tour around Belfast – similar but slightly different route to the one Scarlett and I had done last year but taking in the peace wall, the murals, various other landmarks of key places during The Troubles and many of the new and renovated parts of the city too. Amazing to see how much progress there has been even in the 10 months since I was last there. Belfast is a really lovely city. I like it a lot.

Another friend had flown across from Manchester to visit while we were in Northern Ireland which was a fantastic treat – we’ve not seen each other for about 8 years and it was so, so lovely to catch up in real life again. We met in another of the city’s landmarks – McHughs pub. Usually the location for traditional live music on a Saturday afternoon but that gave way to live coverage of Ireland winning a rugby match in the six nations. Not as exciting for me but judging by all the shouting and cheering at the various large screens throughout the pub no less exciting generally! We got to have a pint or two of Guinness and sample some top craic with friendly Irish folk though. It was all good.

It doesn’t take much for teenagers to turn completely nocturnal and I confess to heading that way myself in certain company so much late night antics were on the cards – for the teens it seemed to be consuming lots of processed snacks and fizzy drinks, heading out for late night walks and watching a lot of youtube clips. For the adults it was also fizzy drinks, along with some singing, ukulele playing and some peaceful craft skill sharing as we taught our friend how to crochet. We all watched quite a bit of the winter olympics too, but with the sound turned down, music turned up and our own commentary instead.

The crochet skills came in very handy on the Monday when our planned trip to the Giants Causeway had to be called off. It had snowed quite heavily overnight and when we checked travel information we realised all of the visitor services at the Causeway had been closed due to the weather. Of course we could still have gone, but a four hour round trip in poor driving conditions to an outside destination which is slippery even on a dry sunny day seemed foolish. So I held a crochet hexagon masterclass and we made our own! It does not quite have the majesty or breathtaking quality of the real thing but what it lacks in ancient geology, huge size and natural wonderment it almost makes up for in colourfulness, portability and entertainment value! We’ve left it with our friends in case of any more of their visitors having a planned trip to the Causeway fall through.

It does mean our plans for Northern Ireland are still not complete. Not this trip but a return visit is definitely on the cards.

The hiatus continues

In December all four of us were laid low with a really nasty cold. Fortunately it hit us just at the right time to not interfere with anything we had planned or events such as birthdays or Christmas but it had all four of us feeling rough. Ady, Davies and I have all had another cold over the last two weeks or so. Scarlett miraculously managed to escape it but it took the rest of us to our beds for at least a day each with associated moping, whinging and lack of appetite around and about.

Living on a remote island with just 20 or so other residents with a mostly outdoors existence and a fairly healthy diet means we are pretty isolated from the usual germs and rarely get ill. It also means that we have not been exposed to anything for all these years and so when a germ is about we have next to no immunity against it.

These two illnesses – both just winter colds even if there were particularly nasty strains if the virus were made all the easier to deal with by having cosier living conditions than the caravan, more space to flop about in and not get in each others way, access to the chemist for over the counter remedies to ease the symptoms, nice soft tissues and warm bubble baths, even fresh lemons to make countless warm honey and lemon drinks. Mainland living (mainland UK and mainland Ireland) has definitely had it’s advantages over island life at these points. Although of course it could well be argued that if we’d still been on Rum for the winter we probably wouldn’t have come into contact with the germs in the first place…

I guess if nothing else we’ll be returning to Rum with better immune systems!

Aside from coughing and sneezing we’ve been working our way through a few dvd box sets picked up in charity shops. We also had a look at some of the titles our landlords lent us. I don’t think we share tastes in movies although we had watched a few black and white classics. Citizen Kane was a winner.

Davies and I have been going great guns with our studying. We are far ahead of where we are scheduled to be on the study planner which is great as it means no immediate pressure when we get back to Rum. We are both really enjoying the study – both the routine of a couple of hours each day, the snuggling up to work through stuff and the actual content is really interesting. We have both submitted our next assessments which should be marked and returned to us next week and completed a few more of the online assessments which go towards our final marks. We are almost three quarters of the way through the content now and starting to think about further study options.

I’ve been busy with my crochet hook too – if only to justify bringing off a very large bag of yarn with me from Rum which we have carried all around the place with us in our rather cramped car. I now have quite a collection of midges ready to sit on a shelf in the shed when we get back. Along with the pattern I usually use I also bought a pattern for a mosquito and made some adjustments to the pattern to make a midge and found some images online of smaller midges which I was able to work out a pattern for. I still prefer my freeform crochet as a past time but I didn’t bring any blank bags, notebooks or cases to stitch on to so midges it is for now. I can get creative again when we’re back on Rum and I have my usual view to inspire me.

The cold virus and the cold temperatures – we’ve had a few snow flurries – have mostly kept us indoors rather than out exploring but we’ve plans for the next few weeks to get out and about a bit more and make the most of our Irish base.

February

We realised today that it was already gone 530pm and still not dark outside. Living in a house is definitely adding an additional layer of disconnect between us and nature. Back on Rum while there were days that passed without me going outside, particularly at this time of year I was definitely more aware of what was happening out there. I am both missing and enjoying not missing that I think.

Turning the calendar to a new page today means two entire calendar months have passed without us being on Rum – December and January. Both the worst months in terms of being there for the weather but also the best months for being there to celebrate Scarlett’s birthday, Solstice, Christmas, New Year, my birthday, Burns Night. We’ve built some fantastic memories of the 2017 and 2018 celebrations of those occasions in different locations instead, it feels strange not to have been there for them ‘at home’ though.

Last week was Burns night, my favourite celebration on Rum. I love the food preparation – we’ve been involved in making the ‘staggis’ (Rum venison haggis) for the last few years, the ceremony of the order of the evening, I love the actual food, the poetry, the communal eating, drinking and telling stories, I love the ‘Rum twist’ of customs that are very much our own held within the community we live in. We cooked and ate haggis here, toasted lads and lassies and thought about our Scottish connections.

We had another ‘when in Ireland’ adventure and visited Knock shrine. Site of an apparition and place of pilgrimage for thousands every year. It was very quiet being January but the museum was excellent with a fantastic audio tour, we visited the one holy souvenir shop open in whole street full of holy souvenir shops to buy plastic bottles to fill with holy water.

Davies and I got properly stuck back into studying, finishing and submitting our second assignments, Davies had a phone chat with his tutor and we started the third block of study. We are still slightly ahead thanks to our intense start back on Rum despite taking December and most of January off.

Easily the loveliest thing about the last week though was a visit from friends. It’s definitely been what the house and our time here so far has been waiting for – friends to make it feel like a home!

Three weeks in

This time three weeks ago we were at sea. We still had a couple of hours on a ferry and a couple more driving before we arrived here at the house.

In three weeks we have settled in. We’ve worked out how to use the clay oven and the range for heating and cooking. We’ve mastered bread, soups, coffee, pizzas, stews, pies, curries, roast dinners, cakes and crumbles.

I’ve bought the traditional yellow tin of Irish tea and am enjoying it in my own special mug

We have hemmed the fleece blankets we keep in the car to make makeshift curtains to hang up to keep the room cosier at night, invested in a thicker duvet, an electric blanket and a hot water bottle (for various people depending on preference) all of which will come home to Rum with us. We found a candle holder for one euro in a charity shop which has made evening baths into something special.

After more live chats with couriers that I can count and driving to the post office twice to collect parcels we have made a sign for the gate and successfully had our first delivery of post to the actual address.

We have worked out where to take bottles and cans for recycling and after a very frustrating and expensive trip to the local landfill site we are now returning what little plastic packaging we cannot avoid bringing home back to the litter bins at the supermarkets we’ve purchased things from. We can navigate to the local town and back without satnav even in the dark (that took a fair few attempts!) and have a loyalty card for the local chain of supermarkets and know what time short date food starts to be reduced to clear so have a freezer stocked with bargains.

Davies and I have been studying. We’ve both finished and submitted our second assignments. We’re about to start working on the third block of four. Ady is plotting improvements and plans for the croft and caravan when we get back to Rum. Scarlett is mastering a whole new level of baking challenges – what she gains in electricity and a fridge she lacks in an easily controlled temperature of oven. Bonnie and Kira are enjoying being free.

We have compiled a list of things to see and do while we’re in Ireland. It is far from the best time of year to be out and about, some of the attractions are closed or on limited opening at this time of year and a lot of the best things to see and do are outside so need careful planning for the best weather conditions. But we have drawn up a list and are ticking things off.


So far we’ve visited Galway and stood in the bay and been to the seaweed baths at Enniscrone which will definitely go down in our list of unique experiences. Ady and I had the twin room with two baths and a steam box. You go into the box with only your head outside and release the lever to fill the box with steam – a sort of gentle sauna which opens your pores, then you get into the saltwater seaweed filled bath. Eventually after a long soak in the salty, floaty bath while the seaweed swirls around you, you have a cold seawater shower to close your pores back up.

The baths, now in the fifth generation of the family who opened them in 1912 – the year the Titanic sailed from Ireland are housed in a gorgeous building right next to the stunning beach. A pumphouse brings seawater across to be stored on the roof of the building and it is piped in and heated to run the baths, filled with freshly harvested seaweed. The cold showers are simply released from the storage tanks on the roof. The baths, taps and shower fittings, steam boxes and tiling in the rooms is all original Victorian and over 100 years worth of people have relaxed in them. The seaweed and salt water is said to have health benefits for conditions including eczema, psoriasis, rheumatism and arthritis and is beautifully moisturising and relaxing. I’d never even heard of seaweed baths before we arrived here and found a leaflet advertising the bath house. It was a lovely, if slightly mad way to spend an hour or so!

We have been to the east and west coasts of Ireland now and plan to head down to the south and up to the north. We have various other places and experiences to tick off our lists while we’re here, along with more studying. Mostly though we are enjoying the wind and rain battering the house, particularly at night and feeling safe and secure instead of vulnerable and worried.

Live and learn

As previously mentioned this was a knee jerk, impetuous decision for three months. We left Rum in November with a few goals to achieve – to work out what we wanted to do next, to see what the mainland and a more conventional life had to offer, to experience some of the stuff we had been missing out on by living on a remote island for the last five and a half years. We wanted to catch up with family and friends, escape the worst months of the weather on Rum, finish off Davies and my studying and enjoy a cosy winter with a few home comforts after five harsh winters battling the elements.

Somerset was great – a lovely, busy reintroduction to mainland life. We spent loads of time with friends, enjoyed the run up to Christmas in style and thanks to the generosity of our lovely friends Jill & Johnny were treated to many experiences. We had a cosy cottage with dishwasher, washing machine, fridge and freezer, bath and central heating. But we knew it was not where were supposed to stay and settle. We have connections in Glastonbury which will always call us back, even more connections were made this visit with more friends and memories.

Sussex is comfortable and familiar, filled with memories at every turn – here is where I grew up, went to school and college, learned to drive. Where I fell in love for the first, second, third time. There is the pub I used to drink in, the houses of friends I used to know, that is where I had my first job, used to go shopping, pushed my children in pushchairs, took them to the park, played on the beach. It’s where family live, where many friends still are. We will come back there again and again but it’s definitely, 100% no longer home.

It was so illuminating to spend time in those places at the end of last year. So interesting to live a different life, albeit briefly to the one we have lived for the last five years. To remind ourselves of how things used to be, how they could be again if we chose. I certainly expected to feel as though we had barely been away and as though we could slip back in, almost unchanged as though we had barely been away. After all we had left and returned to Glastonbury several times during our WWOOFing year, at the very start, midway through and again at the end. We had left Sussex for several years in the early 2000s and come back and re-settled.

It turns out though we have changed more than we realised. In ways we could not have imagined. Sitting at a Christmas party table with more people around it than live on the whole of our island did not excite and delight as we might have imagined it would. Instead it reminded us of those friends we usually live alongside and know so well that many of the conversations around that table, indeed the fun game we played after dinner to test how well we all knew each other (it was a staff party, many of those attending work together day in, day out and have done for years) would have been a flop on Rum as we all know each other so well it would have been redundant.

So to Ireland – what started as the calling across the miles of a beautiful house turned into a real option for another few months. An opportunity to explore another country, live somewhere we have never spent much time but wondered about after friends moved here more than a decade ago to start a new life. Land and property are cheap, the climate not unlike what we are used to. Transport links better than the Inner Hebrides and closer proximity to a town for resources, shopping, social opportunities. A house with a bath, washing machine, freezer, electricity. A house we can drive right up to to unload shopping. Land for the cat and dog to roam free once more. A bigger space for us to fill, more privacy and larger bedrooms for Davies and Scarlett. If not a permanent solution it could well offer another alternative to consider in working out what we do want next.

So far – just over two weeks in – we are learning every day. Learning how to operate a very different house to any we’ve lived in before. One with cooking, heating and hot water fuelled by a wood burning clay oven and a peat fuelled range. One in a different country with a different currency and different rules and ways of doing things. There are frustrations, things to get used to, things to learn and things to understand. While we’re here we are working through a list of ‘places to see in Ireland’ – some are revisiting from a previous trip, some are new. Some are experiences, some are destinations.

We are also doing a whole lot of talking, planning and working out what happens next and how we go about making it happen. A new plan is forming just as we hoped it might.

In the meantime though, Davies and I are back to studying, Scarlett is back to baking, Ady is back to photographing and we’re all getting on with living, learning and making the most of wherever we happen to be right now.

Off island, on Ireland birthday

It’s a week ago now but last Saturday, a few days after we arrived here in Mayo was my birthday. I am 44.

I had an absolutely lovely day. I started it with a bubble bath, while drinking a huge mug of tea and listening to the radio. My favourite radio presenter is Graham Norton and despite having tried a few times before to get a mention on his show I’ve never managed it before. This year though I did! And not just a mention but a birthday greeting and a general chat from Graham about how to celebrate my birthday and a ‘good for you’ comment about our Irish adventure. Made my day!

We had a full Irish breakfast cooked on the range / clay oven which we are getting to grips with mastering. Sausages, bacon, eggs and bread all locally sourced from County Mayo.

Then we headed off for a walk. There is a peat bog at the bottom of the farm and we’d been told a good circular walk heading that way so off we set. Bonnie was delighted to be walking off the lead with all of us, the sun shone, the air was filled with the smell of peat fires and it was just lovely.

We saw donkeys, horses and sheep along the way which delighted Scarlett who adores donkeys.

Later we had Irish steak for dinner followed by some fancy desserts which we stuck matches in as the birthday candles are in a bag I left behind in Sussex (fool!) and has not made it here to us yet.


I’ve had some amazing birthdays over the years. This one was another happy memory to add to the list of lovely ways to celebrate another journey around the sun. Thank you to everyone who wished me a happy birthday – family, friends and of course Graham Norton!