The Mayflies rise early in the month if the weather is any way normal. Sometimes, if Spring comes in too soon and Summer follows on, the earth begins to shrink in the heat and even the midges stay in the shade. It’s too hot to work on the bog, without shade of tree or hill and the cattle lie apart, heaving the heat at midday. May in Ireland can be hot and dry. That May, Bealtaine as it’s known in Old Irish, the first one, was the dry beginning to a long, hot summer.
I had spent several weeks each year in the west of Ireland, looking at old cottages with land, ones that were affordable, but not one met all the criteria I had set in my head. This trip was different, for I was desperate to leave London and change my life. It was a case of any reasonable dwelling with a few acres of land. This time it was going to be less of a search for perfection and more applying my vivid imagination to the most hopeless looking ruin! In the event, I settled for the last property on the list, featuring all the wrong aspects, including north-facing, wet, rush-infested land. Here stood Bealtaine Cottage and in my mind’s eye it was my dream home and smallholding.
The auctioneer, that’s Irish for Estate Agent, owned a pub in town. It was a case of going up to the bar and asking this rather old man if he had any properties for sale! It was then just a slip of the tongue to order an Irish whiskey and soda. Somewhere, in all of this confusion, a conversation developed that resulted in a short biography of sorts being delivered to the pub landlord, eloquently finished off with a heartfelt plea for an old cottage that had a little land around it. By the following evening I was relaxing, back in the lounge bar of the same pub, toasting my new home, Bealtaine Cottage. The deal was done and dusted, even using the same solicitor as the vendor, for speed of purchase! What matter the hole in the roof, no plumbing, ancient wiring and a rocky mud track that served as a lane-way! Or, for that matter, the boggy land that had no drainage, trees, or outbuildings. No matter anything! I paid the asking price and headed back to London, to hand in my resignation and pack up my worldly goods.
It was raining on the day I left London. Ireland sweltered in a heat wave, according to BBC Radio Four.
Money being at a premium, I hired a big Luton van on a four-day lease. This was early July and the intention was to collect everything that could be transported, load the van in a day and make it to the overnight crossing from Holyhead to Dublin. I drove the van all over North London, collecting my chattels here and there, from the homes of friends and family, who’d agreed to store them after I sold my house. My optimism diluted the madness of the day!
The ferry sailed at three in the morning, docking in Dublin by breakfast time and before the city stirred. The drive from Dublin would take around 3 hours. All went according to plan. It never occurred to me that unloading the van would be a one-woman show. This would be a good template for how the next nine years would be!
I had friends and family to help me load up in London, but arriving at Bealtaine Cottage, it suddenly dawned upon me that I had decided to buy a home and settle, in a place where I had no family, or friends and knew absolutely no-one!
It was a long hot day as I unloaded my worldly goods into a ramshackle cottage, pushing and shoving as much as I could fit into one of the two small bedrooms, where all would be safe and out-of-the-way as I renovated the cottage! That was the plan…
Plants in pots were the first to be removed from the van and the last to be sorted out. Most of the pots held saplings and shrubs, grown from seed or cuttings on my allotment in London. The tiny trees were strong and healthy, so I found a sheltered, sunny spot by the south side of the cottage walls. I packed moss around the pots and watered well. Arranging all I had into some sort of order was important, as I would be back and forth to London over the next few months, couch-surfing, as I continued to work and gather money for all that needed to be done on the cottage, before winter arrived!
October. My birthday month. Mid-term break at school allowed me the opportunity to get back to Ireland, for a short time and my beloved Bealtaine Cottage. The stone walls held my dreams, calling out to me to breathe life into their sad and empty shell.
Over the course of the summer, a local contractor had been engaged to make a gravel road into the property and excavate much of the earth, that had been previously washed down from the hill of Ballyfermoyle, behind the cottage, onto the land surrounding the dwelling.
The area all around the structure was dug out, quite deep, then filled with ton after ton of local limestone gravel. This proved to an excellent investment, as the climate was beginning to change and rainfall was about to become heavier and more aggressive, impacting badly on the soil, causing erosion everywhere! The gravel would later prove be a wonderful area, in which Valerian, a lime-loving flowering plant, would flourish in successive years! The gravel road was completed and I finally had access to my home!
It was imperative that I start the work on restoration and renovation. I had ten days to find a reliable person whom I could trust to work for me.
First on the “To-Do,” list was the roof!
A gaping hole opened the soon to be kitchen onto the star-filled heavens, on a good night. Most of the time it was rainwater that seeped and sometimes splattered onto the cottage floor from the heavens above. There were no ceilings to speak of, merely re-enforced cardboard, that looked substantial, but gave way to the force of a broom being tapped on any part of it. This emergency repair was to be followed by re-wiring, plumbing, (for there was no kitchen sink)! and the purchase and fitting of a Stanley Stove. The stove would heat the water and the soon-to-be-installed radiators. Once this work was allocated to a local handyman, with contacts, very important to have contacts as I soon found out, work started on the cottage and I began walking the land.
The land. Some of the saddest looking land I had ever walked upon. The ground squelched beneath my feet, brown, boggy water oozing up either side of my wellies. Parts of the acreage were so boggy, it was dangerous to stand still for more than a few seconds! It quickly became apparent that a lot of drainage was going to have to be carried out!
There follows an event of perfect synchronicity, one in which I was introduced to a man with a digger, but, no ordinary man with digger. No. A man who listened to what I wanted and worked alongside me, despite the apparent craziness of the plan I outlined to him! Synchronicity happens as a moment of “meaningful coincidence” and this meeting was to shape the entire future of Bealtaine. The land needed more than just drainage, it cried out for understanding and empathy, both of which John had in abundance.
There is much to be said for a man who makes you laugh!
After quizzing John about what he was able to do as a “Man with Digger,” he laughed, held up a piece of blue baling twine and said, in all seriousness, “we have the technology!”
I put my faith in that twine, it has to be said, and was not let down or disappointed! John and his Digger moved onto the land and stayed about a week, leaving behind a perfectly drained and sculpted landscape, complete with ponds, stream, ditches and drains.
After creating the deep drains along the back of the land, John moved the digger down onto the flat, boggy land towards the road. It was here that the pond garden was to evolve, beginning with a big pond, that would carry all the water from the ditches, though the pond and out the other side into a created stream bed, that would take it into a connecting ditch leading to a waterway.
As John started the excavations, I left him to walk back up to the cottage to make some lunch for us both. I had hardly walked more than a few yards when the noise of the digger stopped. I heard John’s voice calling out to me.
“Colette, you’d better come back and have a look at this!”
As I turned around I saw the huge shovel, stopped in mid-air, with an almighty rock aboard.
It was the first of several such stones, some of which showed signs of having been worked by human hand. John and I discussed what to do with them, when he suggested they be set upright in specific places around the land. I was to decide upon where they were to be placed.
The great thing about big machines is that they can complete, what seems to us mere mortals as, huge tasks, relatively easy.
Within the space of an afternoon, some massive stones were put standing sentry on the land, emanating a wonderful energy that spelled out a new, exciting era! More stones were uncovered. These were, evidently, all heavily worked stones and made a series of steps up the gardens that appeared to have been there forever. The land was coming to life, guiding us to what it wanted to be…a magical garden!
Standing by the kitchen window, looking down the land to the front of the cottage, has become something of a morning ritual for me now.
In the early days, it was possible to look down as far as the road, across the tops of tiny, newly planted sapling trees and small bushes, that seemed to be drowning in tall grass and rushes. I could see the whole garden, the lay of the land, as they say here in Ireland. It was from this vantage point, leaning against the sink, cup of tea in one hand, that I admired the work carried out by John.
The pond had filled with water and was drawing the blue sky down into the Earth itself. The filling had completed overnight and the early morning sunshine bounced off the top of the little damn, where the water spilled over into the stream that carried it off, on a long and winding journey, towards its eventual union with the Atlantic Ocean.
It had stunned myself and John, to see the water gushing into the pond, non-stop, from the point at which the mighty shovel of the digger drove into the clay and bog, releasing a torrent of water which, to this day, has not stopped!
There is something very sacred in releasing water and watching as it finds its freedom. The land was communicating with me, awakening me to the realization that she was alive and breathing, wanting to stretch and blossom, as though she were the Sleeping Beauty of fairy tales.
Previous generations of people lived, not just on the land, but with the land. Songs and ballads were composed and sung in her honour. The land always referred to as “the Mother,” evoked deep emotion within the souls of hundreds of generations of its people. Grown Irish men, with fists like rocks, have wept uncontrollably, into pints of Guinness, poured in bars on foreign soil, remembering the great mother, the land. She had captured my heart and I, too, had fallen hopelessly in love with her.
The sounds of Winter carry like echoes across a skeletal landscape. Birds calling to one another, in search of food. Hungry foxes on the hill above the cottage. Tractors, laden with bales of hay and silage, edging along icy roads, chugging a rhythm into a still morning.
Every day was spent out on the land, planting trees, most of them bare-rooted trees, sold in bulk from the nurseries. Anyone who visited was asked to bring a tree or two! By winters end there were over three hundred trees growing at Bealtaine! Willow was planted all over the land, but as slips cut from hedgerows and not counted as trees. My brother, Hugh came to visit and together we planted a Willow Fedge…a living fence!
That first winter at Bealtaine Cottage took me away from the constant drone of city noise into a countryside filled mostly with intermittent signals of life. Some now say that the Universe itself was created by sound, vibrational energy. I had entered a new Universe, come to live among new vibrations that began to re-create me!
For most of my life I had smoked cigarettes, chain-smoked if I tell the truth! One day, on arising, I decided that smoking was a thing of the past and I no longer desired tobacco. I never smoked again!
Then, I decided I wanted to live as a Vegetarian. I have not eaten meat from that day on.
I embraced many changes in the first year at Bealtaine Cottage. The energy around me was having an effect on my being, shriving me of my former life’s desires. I slept deeply and woke early. Each day began with a desperate need to walk outside, regardless of weather. Connecting with the natural world became one of the first rituals of the day…it was like a drug! The world of Mother Nature fulfilled all my spiritual desires…I no longer hold to any religion. Like my forbears, the Celts, I witness the Divine in all life. All that was my past life became a foreign land, at times unrecognizable to me.
Winters in the west of Ireland can be quite short compared to London. There is more light for a start as the sun sets in the west.
Bealtaine Cottage is far enough inland from the Atlantic ocean to be sheltered from the worst of the storms, but near enough to the coast to avail of the warmth of the Gulf Stream.
Spring happens early!
Traditionally celebrated as Imbolc on the first day of February, the first day of Spring is also celebrated as Brigid’s Day. The changes are fast indeed! Willow and Ribes burst into life, alongside daffodils and snowdrops. Herbs such as Chives are ready for harvesting by Imbolc and buds are thickening just about everywhere.
The memory of that first Spring at Bealtaine is evoked with scents. The smell of the awakening earth is a powerful, erotic scent that stirs the senses for every living, sentient being on this planet. This scent, whether aware of it or not, has the most powerful effect on mood and motion, energizing every aspect of life. All beings respond in a primordial way that has no bearing on modern life. Happiness and optimism are measurably increased in the population at large. We have a desire to be outdoors. The traffic at Garden Centres increases dramatically! The memory of Spring keeps us moderately happy, as we plod through the darkness of the winter months. That winter was broken by an invitation to spend the holiday season in England.
Spending Christmas with family and friends, in London, was warm and cheering. I visited friends, went to the cinema and walked for miles around Kenwood at Hampstead heath and back to Muswell Hill via Highgate Woods. I love North London, but held an insatiable desire to be back on the land at Bealtaine. As I retired to bed each night, in centrally heated comfort in my daughter’s apartment, my mind conjured images of all I had planted back in Ireland. I was counting the days until my return!
As I approached the day of my departure, I spent several mornings trawling around charity shops in North London, seeking out anything that would be useful to add to my new life, in a cottage in the west of Ireland. Jumpers, raincoat, jeans and strong boots were acquired and stashed straight into the boot of the car. Lots of books, an enamel teapot and an almost new Le Creuset kettle, which, by the way, I still have and use! My final trawl around the shops was for provisions that proved to be cheaper to buy in bulk in London, such as herbs and spices, coffee beans, fluoride-free toothpaste and my favourite Indian soap. The car was packed like a pioneer wagon as I set off west for Holyhead and the Dublin ferry! I was on my way home. This was the first journey back to the place I now called home!
Ireland is an ancient country, a strange mix of people living on the fringes of Europe, the last stop before America! Well, that is how it appears to most who live elsewhere. A land where Celts once lived and Druids held the people close to the earth and all the magic therein…
For hundreds of years, this small island on the Atlantic seaboard has encountered swathes of invading forces, from England and Europe, each one either assimilated into the ancient culture, or leaving in utter despair! Indifference to Ireland seems unfathomable.
Winter was passing out as I returned to Bealtaine Cottage. Spring was just about to breeze in and in some parts of the land, as I drove west from Dublin, I spotted cows already liberated from their byres and barns, all set to gallivant and cavort as only animals that have been confined for weeks on end, can do!
Ireland sits on the edge of the wonderful, warming Gulf Stream, that manages to keep the severe frost away from the coastal regions, allowing Yucca type palms, Cordylines, to grow tall and strong around small cottages. The Gulf Stream moderates the climate, making it mild enough for palm trees like Trachycarpus fortunei to grow throughout the island. This can be rather confusing for first time visitors to Ireland. The Gulf Stream creates such a warming effect, that Spring heralds a month or so earlier than most of the British Isles, Cornwall and parts of Western Scotland being the exception.
Arriving at the cottage towards the end of January, I was just a few days away from Imbolc, known also as Saint Brigid’s Day, the first day of February. It was evident that Spring had begun to arrive, for as I drove up the lane, Primroses peeked out from dry, sheltered parts of the bank that divided the land from a neighbouring field. I was aware that about an hour more of daylight separated this westerly point from the darker evenings in London.
The Pleiades is a group of stars that sit in the eastern sky. This little huddle of stars are most visible around midnight on Samhain, October the thirty-first. Indeed, the ancient races of Ireland, particularly the Celts, used the Pleiades as a way of marking time.
Looking out into the night skies, during that first Spring was awesome. With little or no light pollution, the night sky took on a mystical appearance. It became a catechism I had to learn. Groups of stars came and went, shapes manifested into recognizable features: the Plough; Bear; Orion’s Belt. I was beginning to see and think like an ancestor.
The night sky became important and comforting. I watched for Venus in the west, Sirius, the Dog Star and constellations whose names I was yet to learn. I became enchanted as I watched the Milky Way above the chimney, as wood-smoke curled its way upwards.
I understood that Celtic tribes celebrated Samhain on the first full moon after the Pleiades reached its highest ascent in the night sky. The Pleiades can be seen about one hour after sunset at the end of October. Keeping time had nothing to do with clocks or glossy calendars then!
The night sky was a revelation to me, as I also began to mark the phases of the moon and learn about the importance of these phases in sowing and planting. Rudolph Steiner and the principles of Biodynamic Gardening became new reading matter, as I slowly started to connect the dots of life on this sacred planet. I learned that nothing was separate. everything was connected.
Despite the disadvantages of the location of the cottage, (being on a north-facing slope), the wider area afforded me not just a spectacular park, in the form of Lough Key Forest Park, but also two admirable garden centres.
The smallest of these was to be found in the Forest Park itself and it’s there I went to buy my first fruit trees. My intention was to plant an orchard and a variety of fruit trees throughout the three acres, thus creating a food forest. By this time I had bought an old car and trailer, intending to transport everything I needed myself. My first run to the garden centre was productive, returning home, the trailer crammed with two plum trees, two dessert apple trees and one Bramley. This was the beginning of what was to become a most productive fruit garden on the upper slopes near the cottage.
Even though the land lay very exposed to the wind, with no protective stands of trees or layers of bushes, I decided not to stake any of the trees, but to prune them hard back instead. This would allow the trees to put down stronger roots, as they moved about in the wind. Visitors thought me a little mad, but the apple harvests at Bealtaine Cottage bear witness to my sanity! For the nine years since planting, the fruit trees have given me generous harvests, with the apples cropping heavy every year! Testament to a strong root system!
Sheep wool was laid in tidy formation around each tree in wide circumference, for two reasons. The first being that the raw wool made a brilliant weed barrier. Sheep wool is also a great fertilizer! This meant that every time it rained, and it does rather rain here in the west of Ireland, the trees would receive a dollop of good food!
I had read about the women on the Aran Islands, watering the vegetable beds, with the water used for washing the sheep wool before spinning, so was familiar with the value of wool in horticultural terms. The women knew that this water benefited the crops and helped produce healthy food. Farming on the Aran Islands is a continual battle against the elements, so any traditions evolving there in terms of growing would be sound!
Wool was used by farmers in the North of England, spreading ‘shoddy,’ as it was called, onto the fields as a fertilizer. Of course, this was in the days before the first World War and chemical fertilizer.
Here in the West of Ireland there is no shortage of wool and it can be purchased easily and cheaply from any sheep farmer. Farmers are poorly paid for the material and in some cases will give it away freely.
The land around Bealtaine Cottage was infested with rushes, huge, mature clumps of thick, dense rushes. To this day, many fields in this part of Ireland are covered in them. Chemicals are sprayed over them, they are cut by machine, but still they remain, testament to little or no drainage, a scarcity of trees and lack of hedgerow.
Some years ago the E.U. paid Irish farmers to tear out the hedgerows, in order to make bigger fields, where machinery could gain wider access. It appears that no-one in Brussels knew much about the Irish climate or, indeed, the direction of the prevailing wind.
Rushes grow and flourish as the farmer spreads chemical fertilizer, seeding themselves in wild abandon, as the westerly wind carries the seed across open fields without tree or hedge to stop the spread. And so the problem of rushes continues unabated!
Draining the land at Bealtaine and planting trees and bushes has virtually eradicated the dreaded Rush! As leaves are shed from the hundreds of deciduous trees, so the organic content of the soil improves and worms get to work opening it up and allowing air to reach the stagnant daub. The heavy cattle no longer plod the land, creating holes where water collects…called ‘poaching’. Chop and drop techniques, employed in Permaculture, begin to enrich the earth, visible as mushrooms start to rise out from it.
The healing of three acres gains speed year on year. The balance is restored. The health of the soil increases exponentially year on year.This is what I have learned over nine years and what I could only imagine would happen. As I planted that first orchard and found small, clear patches of grass into which I planted the first trees, transferring them carefully from little pots into the sacred earth, blessing each one and surrounding it with a tiny duvet of raw wool, the idea that Mother Nature would take over the task of healing the earth never really crossed my mind.
It is a rare thing to see an invalid rise up from the sickbed and become like new, but this was the magic that manifested all around me. I felt myself growing into the shoes of ancestors of this land, who understood the secret ways of Mother Earth, embracing the cycles of life, death and rebirth. My understanding and way of thinking began to change, as rapidly as the very earth around me transformed herself!
The woman who chain-smoked, ate meat, enjoyed alcohol and all the luxuries of twenty-first century life, was fading into the bright mornings and clear night skies of the west of Ireland. I was re-emerging, shriven of religion and closer to the Divine, than was ever imagined or hoped for…it was not only the land transforming, but all who established contact with her!
Ireland endures a wet climate. Perhaps “endures,” is the wrong word, for within this wet climate sits an island of lush green. Moss clings to rock and tree alike, bestowing an ancient air of magic and mystery, in valleys where trees drip with magnificent lengths of dark green ivy that hang low over mossy ground. Ferns add to this primitive looking landscape, some remaining green and decadent throughout a mild winter, another aspect of a wet climate. It was with this knowledge that I decided to add a polytunnel to the gardens under construction! A place of perpetual dry, sheltered from the worst excesses of the climate!
Having no idea where to begin my quest for a suitable polytunnel, and being somewhat constrained by available funds, I began, where all impoverished people begin, window shopping! The local Garden Centres had a small range of tunnels for recommendation, all within the pages of catalogues, so that gave me a rough guide to cost. This being Ireland however, talking is the order of the day and it was at the Garden Centre that I picked up some very interesting information…the name and number of a local man, who actually built polytunnels from scratch, no outside company involved! Every pioneer needs support and it was Michael who turned out to be, not just a creative designer and builder but, a good friend.
It was apparent to me, as I walked the land, that the soil was very thin, and in some parts, erosion had revealed the underlying bedrock. This bedrock was red sandstone, already visible in the newly dug stream bed, as water washed small deposits of sand up against the banks of the stream. It was with this knowledge that myself and Michael set about ensuring a suitable location for the tunnel.
Finding the right spot on which to erect a tunnel was proving to be a problem, as Michael moved across the chosen spot with a long metal rod, measuring depth. My choice of North/South alignment for the tunnel was essential to my plan, as the smooth edge of the construction should face into the prevailing wind coming in from the west. Eventually we located a spot, near the eastern edge of the land, sheltered by an ancient, overgrown hedge, where the full length of the tunnel could be erected.
The design was simplicity itself. Fencing posts would be sunk every metre or so, driven into the ground as deep as they could be. These posts marked the perimeter of the tunnel on both sides, forming a long rectangle. Following this, all posts were cut off at the same height, again, about a metre or so from soil to tip. A hole, wide enough and deep enough to accommodate a metal rod, was drilled into the top of each post. Long, straight metal rods were bent into shape on a nearby V-Shaped Ash tree, to form a half circle. Each rod was then inserted into opposite posts and the skeletal frame of the tunnel began to take shape. The rods were then held in place by long, connected lengths of wood, first connected along the top centre of rods, then tightened and reinforced by similar along each side. (In the event of this book ever getting published, relevant photographs will illustrate all of this!) Wooden doors and frames were constructed for each end and finally, and this was the clever part, strong wires were added the length of the tunnel, as a measure of reinforcement in the event of heavy snow!
Within a few years we endured one of the most severe winters on record, with deep snow that stayed for six weeks. The tunnel stayed perfectly in place and the plastic as tight as a drum. Nine years later and the tunnel remains good with the original plastic still perfect!
Thanks to all who have sent me messages of encouragement and support as I write…thanks and blessings to you all!
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