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All Roads Lead to Home

We bid a sad, sudden and sentimental farewell to our fulltime vanlives in mid November after 15 amazing months on the road, recounting the best days and the worst days and the most memorable ones as we drove and laughing and laughing until tears flowed down our faces. Crossing the Musical Bridge at Bellacorick late that dark and stormy evening and heading for our new home, the rough sea was breaching the beach edge and thrashing the road ahead, bashing down in furious waves under our wheels but Dixie bravely navigated the weather and the flash flooding to arrive safely in Blacksod. Excitement was high as you can imagine but we took our time to look around, boiling the kettle (electric!) for endless cups of tea and examining the house room by room before settling in to a new bed for the night. In the coming days we slowly and methodically emptied our entire lives item by item from the little white Fiat Ducato into the little white house on the peninsula. Finding a washing machine plumbed in and waiting for us was a reason to be truly grateful as every single piece of fabric, every cloth and curtain and towel and rug really needed attention after 15 months of living on the road and the associated grime involved. A couple of days and a couple of machine loads later, with our blankets and clothes blown dry by the fresh Atlantic breeze, we sorted and seperated van-stuff from stuff-stuff and repacked Dixie for the next adventure. Whenever that would be.

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Not a bad panorama from the washing line, huh? Across the sea, thats Doohoma. When the sun is high in the sky the golden strand shines back at us, a long strip of sunlit sand, winking brightly in the distance and inviting us over. One day soon we must go back there and see again for ourselves these beaches and headlands and coves that make up our fantastic new view.

After a few days of adjusting, wandering around wearing soft slippers and stupid smiles as the realisation dawned on us that we actually OWN this place, we settled right back in to houselife again. Things I enjoy most about living in a house include unfethered access to a full bathroom, electric shower and a real flushing toilet. No more timed showers, paid for in coins or units fed into a box in a chilly toilet block, no such careful consideration for the volume of water used as before and no more early morning pyjama dash across the carpark to take care of business. Of course, we have a bookshelf here, and waredrobes and drawers, a bedroom door (a bedroom!) a fridge AND a freezer. Heating and hot water at the touch of a button and the electricity never ever runs out! There is even a small room I hope to one day call my office. The little house is the perfect size for us.

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Of course, every thing in life has its own honeymoon period and I’m sure any new homeowner doesn’t want to go too far from their own place at first. Our first week passed in a lovely blur of exploring, disecting, discussing and deciding. There is quite a bit of cosmetic work we want to do inside the house (like remove the caravan furniture and all the unnecessary fixed drawers and units) but for the moment the place is comfortable, cosy and ours (almost…pending the administrative). Our front window view (so reminiscent of a van, the house is a manufactured mobile home at heart after all) is incredible, behind the glass little pink flowers on long wind beaten stems dance daily in the everpresent breeze, the white rolling waves lap the stony grey bay and Slievemore mountain towers over Achill Island, disappearing intermittently under thick Atlantic cloud. Its the best TV station we’ve ever found.

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Every morning in the new house we woke up warm and we laughed. Not a drop of condensation to contend with. Every day William preheated the oven and we had a steady supply of fresh baked loaves. We walked, talked, planned, watched the weather from the windows. Kept switching seats to see the place from every angle. In the evenings we chose a different spot on the peninsula to watch the sun go down.

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Around every corner is another stunning sight. This place is incredible, scenic, quiet, beautiful. We have hare, long and sleek and brown bounding around in the back garden, a hawk who frequents the front post and on the beach every evening a noisy flock of honking barnacle geese announce their presence, feathered guests here to over-winter on the peninsula, all the way from Greenland.

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It definitly feels strange, waking up in a house again. Comfortable and warm and consistent and strange. The first pot of coffee is prepared daily by whomever wakes up first without any hassle (usual coffee concerns include who is getting up to make it, where to bin the previously enjoyed mounds of grounds and rinsing everything off well, often with a limited water supply) and the radiators here can be turned on from bed. We don’t even get a chance to get cold.

I can’t lie, the “few loads” of washing I spoke of earlier took us almost a week to complete. I kept getting distracted at the line, spending hours watching the light of the evening change from blue to orange to pink and the faraway stars start to sprinkle the night like glitter and the massive mountains darken in shade and the low autumn moon crawl slowly across the sky.

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It took longer than a week but shorter than two for us both to get restless. Although warm and dry our feet were itchy and although I love the house and all of its many conveniences I craved the change, the movement. Our local shop here is 18km away, not a journey we aim to undertake much for financial reasons and so we had not travelled much further in weeks. Avoiding refuelling for 10 days is great for the wallet but we both felt we needed to move. I especially missed my favourite part of vanning, the poring over maps part, the hours spent searching for beauty spots off the beaten track and digitally prowling around on the ground on Google Streetview in places I had never heard of previously, sizing up the parking options and making preliminary decisions. William says every little thing is an adventure when you live in a van, nothing is guaranteed, you never know what is going to happen next and thats what makes vanlife so enticing, so enviable and so much fun. The new-ness of a new house that we had been feeling really happens every day in a van. We packed Dixie up for a trip to Dublin for a couple of reasons, to visit my family, to time the journey from our new home to our nations capital for future reference and because we wanted to trial run some new devices. We could also pick up supplies for the new house along the way.

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Obviously, preparing for a trip away from base is completely different than when the van IS the base. Full water, empty bins and a toilet so clean you could shit in it, vanning from home is an absolute breeze! We will be spending some time on a driveway this December and without a heater that sounds kinda chilly. This year we have a few tricks up our sleeve in the form of an extension lead, an electric blanket (both acquired for free) and a mini oil filled radiator (Only €14, a “Black Friday Only” offer still available days after the fact) Dixie doesn’t have an external socket for EHU (a fact that often surprises other vanners, yes we have travelled this far without ever plugging in!) but now we do have access to an outdoor socket and a window which winds down… One other addition to the van is a cooler bag. Something else so necessary we should probably have purchased it sooner.

About twenty minutes into the cross country journey I realised I had forgotten to bring my ukelele. Not something I ever thought about previously, it has always been right there on the door handle. Sad me but there reaches a point where there is no turning back.

It soon unfolded that door to door (new house in Mayo to parental driveway in Dublin) takes around 4 hours and 40 minutes, allowing for a fuel stop, an icecream and a minor adjustment required to right Dixies power steering. Our first night back we stayed up until dawn talking with friends and a pleasant 6° air awaited us at 4:30 am when we did eventually crawl back to the van and under the covers, the usual army of hot water bottles by our feet, just in case.

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It seems strange to me to update the Backwards Van facebook page from home so I haven’t. Originally I set out to write a van blog but over the year this has morphed into something else entirely and now, without any plan to we’ve suddenly bought a house. We’re not fulltime van-dwellers anymore. We have an address. We will still be vanning, just not all the time. With no jobs, we’re not living for Friday, so we’re not quite weekend warriors either. We hadn’t thought we’d be in a house, not for a long time anyway. Life sure is odd.

On our second night driveway surfing in Dublin we tried out the electric blanket. Such unheard of levels of warmth and comfort inside this old van! Add to this the little radiator sat radiating and we haven’t been this hot since our Hebridean summer heatwave! The next trip (that famous week of festivities in December which is traditionally a bitter cold one) will be a breeze too. Houselife with all its mod-cons might possibly be softening us up a little. We don’t want to forget how to warm ourselves.

On the way out of Dublin, having unplugged Dixie from the electrical conveniences we headed for a long walk around Girley Bog, a large raised bogland in County Meath. Irelands raised boglands are a diverse environment just as important as the South American rainforests and just as much in decline, just 3% of the worlds surface now is bogland. There are only a couple of raised bogs left in the country, now under the management of Coilte, and we are aiming to visit each one (Incidentally over half the raised bogs in all of Europe are here in Ireland). Upon arrival the carpark entrance was blocked but we know from experience that blocked does not necessarily mean locked.

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Not the brightest evening for a look around but the looped track, rough ground with some boardwalk planks lead us over the bog, around the surrounding scrubland and through a young forest and we met nobody along the way, a far cry from the busy body-filled streets of Dublin. Although the colours of the plants were solemn and autumnal we did see and hear the usual feathered suspects in Girley Bog, the familiar grunt of the grouse, disturbed by our footsteps too nearby his nest and the wind-up click-click-click and shrill release of the curlew, we even came across a carnivorous Sundew plant. Night was falling fast and we had no overnight stop planned so we climbed back into Dixie to discuss our options. Girley Bog is a fine spot and so close to Dublin, we will visit again in the summertime when the flora and fauna are a little more awake.

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Back to my favourite part of vanlife, the mapping. William calls me The Finder and we love nothing more than the anticipation of driving through the night towards an unknown location. Using Google Earth (and the amazing Streetview option) I quickly found a little marina in a place we’ve never been before, Ballyleague in County Roscommon. We set the Sat Nav up for her final journey of the day and this was our river view as we drifted off, a quiet bridge in the soft streetlight in a sleepy Irish town.

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Nothing beats waking up in Dixie (and NOT on a driveway) and Roscommon did not disappoint. The temperature hit 3° in the very early morning but we were warm with just the water bottles, no electricity necessary. The Shannon river is always a lovely sight, rushing past our bed, and the bright winter sunshine was most welcomed too.

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Ballyleague is beautiful. Along the marina we found a couple of murals, a community library box and a fun and colourful sensory playground, full of outdoor instruments like pipes to tap and drums to bang and with everything painted up prettily like a picture, we had a lovely walk. The marina also has a toilet block, showers, a tap and some rubbish bins, all the usual features of a Waterways Ireland managed stop. A great find. I realised I had also forgotten to bring our laptop tray, so valuable as a flat surface and used all the time in the van.

We were just discussing our next direction (my vote was for Galway, Eyre Square looks so enchanting all dressed up in fairy lights) when we got a call requesting Dixies service (as a moving van) back in Mayo. We had offered to help the previous owner empty out the shed in as many vanloads as it takes. Of course we would be available.

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As the day was still young (and Mayo not too far away) we decided to drop in to the National Museum of Country Life in Castlebar on the way home. Home! It still sounds strange. We spent a few hours learning all about rural Ireland and her people, about sustenance living, using the resources provided by nature in the smartest and most ingenious ways. These people are the frugal minimalists of old, they used every single part of every single thing they had at their disposal (a fact that lead to much criticism by the ‘visiting’ English, who saw this living off the land as cheap and meagre, an uncouth existence. In reality, they were living in an offgrid, sustainable, wise and environmentally friendly way that many of us long for today) I may dedicate a blog to the museum as the building itself is a very interesting piece of architecture and the grounds are spectacular, we visited in the rain however and did not get the chance to explore very far. Traditional Irish tools and crafts (like roof thatching, basket weaving and ironwork) and their processes are on display here, upstairs an exhibition about the evolution of the bicycle and downstairs a temporary installation about Irish Travellers and their history, a truly educational presentation. In one exhibit about rural processes now lost in time, an older man talked about how people were never as busy as they are now, even with all the time saving devices around us like microwaves and washing machines and even cars. People used to take their time in everyday tasks like washing and baking and had plenty of time left to share with their community, helping, talking, collaborating and sharing. Now everybody is on the go all the time, wearing ‘busy’ like a badge of honour that symbolises something about their status in life. We’ve learned that it really doesn’t.

When we got home we realised we’d left the TV on again.

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Home! Another warm night getting used to a house again. It took just one trip each, out and back, to empty Dixie this time. We didn’t bother to take the bed apart. Why? Because of this, one of the many incredible inviting roads leading off the peninsula.

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And just look at this view we could wake up at some day soon, its just minutes from the house:

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We haven’t woken up here yet either, in Belmullet, where the clouds draw themselves on the still surface of the sea:

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Or here, at our local beach, with miles and miles of soft golden sand and not another human in sight:

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Houses are great for facilities and comfort but we think vans are ultimately better and we miss the excitement. The diversity, the various efforts we go to to combat the weather and increase the temperature inside, the new places and new views, the delicate balance of supplies and all the adventure involved in vanning. The weather plays virtually no role in houselife as routines continue as normal indoors, come rain, hail or shine. Warmth, lighting and hot water literally on tap are all fantastic but we start to get lazy and take them for granted, to forget how we managed our utilities before and we have yet to receive a bill for these services we are currently using, thats something dreaded and ‘house-y’ that we are not at all accustomed to. New budgets must be drawn up.

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Forgetting to pack only a tray and a musical instrument, we didn’t do too bad on our first road trip from home. One night plugged in was complete luxury for us and when the winter turns cold and the temperatures drop and next parked up in Dublin, we have options available. Until then we will appreciate the mild December and overnight in some of the many amazing wild spots around, close to home in case Dixie is required further. If we are not out in the weather for whatever reason we can always snuggle up and watch it live on our window TV. And when we do get the van packed up to leave for an adventure, whether for a week or a month, we know this little house will be waiting for us when we return. Now all roads lead to home.

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