I couldn’t believe it. I was sitting outside a lovely pavement café in Memmingen watching all the faces rushing by. In spite of the fabulous weather, each passing face looked sadder or more stressed out then the last. That’s what convinced me that there was something seriously wrong with our society. I was never going to be like them! It took three me years before I realize what could be done.
We had a good business erecting timber-frame houses, our own little house with a garden, 2 children aged 1 and 3 – and a massive mortgage. Out skiing on a glorious day, I was resting at the top of a mountain when the idea suddenly came to me: Just pack up and leave! Look for a better world!
It didn’t take an hour to convince Yvonne that this was worth trying, and , together we spun it into a dream of freedom and adventure.
Our accountant, on the other hand, thought we were mad to quit now, when the business was going so well, and advised us to stick it out for at least another 5 years before making any decision. But that was out of the question for us.
It didn’t take a week to put the house up for sale and to find a 4-wheel drive ex-Army lorry to convert into a camper. Just as we finished the camper conversion, we found a buyer for the house. He paid enough for us to be able to buy off both the mortgage and the penalty for the mortgage cancellation.
We sold, stored or gave away everything we didn’t need, I passed my lorry-driving licence and we had a mighty farewell party.
We couldn’t bring ourselves to tell everyone that we were leaving for good, so we said we were travelling to learn about other ways of life. This was the start of a 3-year journey. Since our budget was extremely small and wouldn’t last 3 months, I packed all my essential carpentry tools and a generator in the hope of finding work along the way.
A very good friend who made and sold beautiful handmade candles showed me the basic techniques and sold us enough wax and candles to create an income for us on auf travels. This made us less like tourists and more like a family of Gypsies, which gained us much goodwill wherever we went. We had no idea how important this was going to be in the years to come.
One Sunday, at our house in Germany, Sigi and I were talking in the sitting room while our friends played with our 2 children in the kids room, when auf of the blue Sigi says: “How would you feel if we sold the house, quit the business, bought a camper-van and travelled round Europe for 3 years looking for a new place to live? I’m sick of living here!”
I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard myself say: “Yep. Brilliant idea. When are we leaving?” I don’t think Sigi could believe it either, as I’m not usually convinced that easily when it comes to big changes.
Well, that Sunday in April 1993 was the beginning!
I found a dealer who specialised in old Army lorries and, at the same time, I advertised our house in the newspaper, just to test the water. By the end of the week we had not only bought a lorry and trailer, but also had our first prospective house-buyers.
It was all happening so fast – but that was what convinced us that our decision was the right one. Surely, if the Universe didn’t mean us to leave, it wouldn’t be making things so easy for us.
Our families and friends thought we were mad. So did our tenants. We had recently asked them to move ort as we needed more space and now the 4 of us were going to live in a lorry!
Over the next few weeks we converted our lorry into “our house”. I must admit that I did insist that a fridge and a washing machine be fitted, because in those days I could not imagine life without them!
With the lorry conversion finished, we quit our jobs and sold our house. On the 6th October we left Germany and set out for Spain, Total freedom!!
We headed for Spain first as we had decided to go south in winter and north in summer. Our initial plan was to drive across France and Spain to Marocco, where we could live cheaply, travel through the desert and learn from a totally different culture. This idea came adrift when we discovered that the Lorry consumed 3 times more diesel than we had budgeted for. The money ran short very quickly but we had a great time and the low budget gave us a new sense of reality. We ate what was cheap and not what we fantasised about. If potatoes were cheap we ate potatoes for a week. We cooked over a campfire, to save money on camping gas, and washed our clothes by hand. You really can live really cheaply if you have nothing to spare.
In rural Spain and Portugal we entered a different world. We saw farmers harvesting their corn by hand.
Ear by ear they checked the plants and any that were ripe were brought home on a donkey and dried on the veranda like precious goods upon which their lives depended. Did they? Their respect for and their dependency upon Nature became very apparent.
One day, we met a group of fishermen on a beach where we were making candle moulds. They became curious and invited us for a drink in a bar that was little more than a tin shed with a wooden counter. They insisted on paying for our drinks, Conversation was limited to what we could express with gestures and drawings and looking at their friendly, passionate and weather beaten faces – so happy in spite of their relative poverty – I couldn’t help thinking of the grumpy faces outside the cafe at home. What a contrast!
It was as if time had stood still and we had been engulfed in a fairy tale. We had countless experiences that straightened our belief in what we had first discovered in Germany: That “reality” was only one of many possible realities and that without doubt, we had made the right decision when we left our former life behind. We also had the best imaginable times with our children. It was like an adventure on a different planet.
However, we ran out of funds! We could not find work without speaking the local language and realized that we’d been a bit naïve to think we could, we were stock in northern Portugal in the middle of winter and we were penniless. It rained for weeks, we couldn’t get our clothes dry, we were freezing and the prospects for change weren’t great.
Our last hope was to make it as far as Ireland as we both spoke a bit of English and hoped this would help us to find work there. We spent the last of our money on the ferry to Rosslare and I must admit that we enjoyed the luxuries on the way across.
During the journey Yvonne and I had many discussions about how to go on from here. We concluded that we’d never find what we were looking for unless we had a much clearer idea of exactly what it was. We started to dream up our future in as much detail as possible.
We were looking for a place just outside a village – near enough to walk to but distant enough for us to be alone. It should have a cottage, with a red roof and red window frames that we could rent as workshop and base camp. There should be neighbours with children the same age as ours, and, if at all possible, someone who spoke our language. It should be in mountainous country but also near the sea, a bit like the west coast of Corsica.
For some reason, it had long been my secret dream to go to Ireland but I had very little idea of the country’s topography and when we arrived at Rosslare and couldn’t see any mountains I almost panicked in despair.
We soon found out that there were mountains in Kerry. We drove west until we could see them in the distance and then stopped for the night. The next day we drove on as far as Caherdaniel. As we passed through Sneem I remember saying that this could be a nice place to live in. With all these colorful houses and the river running through. Sure enough, four days later we realised that we had found the dream we had envisaged and we soon moved into a derelict cottage just 1 mile from Sneem.
The cottage was rent-free on condition that we repaired the first floor and the roof and we were able to find a few small jobs that kept us fed. We met a really nice German couple, which had arrived 3 years earlier, with 2 boys the same ages as our 2 children and they became our neighbors.
Over the next few weeks we met more nice people who understood what we were trying to do than we had ever thought existed. Many of them were in the same position as us – trying to live independently by our own efforts.
Still, I must admit that without the Social Welfare Payments that we soon received we would probably have had to give up and turn for home. But we managed, and we enjoyed every day in harmony and had plenty of time for our children. They were always of the greatest importance to us, no matter what!
The Cottage Industry
The cottage was the start of some serious candle production. Decorative candles were unknown in Ireland at that time and our unusual creations sold like hot cakes. It probably helped that our braided candles were identified as Celtic Knot Work!
We were accepted on an open-your-own-business scheme. That allowed us to progress with our candle making venture whilst – slowly reducing our welfare benefits. Being used to spending very little, we were able to plough 90% of our takings and our welfare money back into the rapidly growing business.
Start of a New Venture
Having arrived in late winter we were soon able to plant a vegetable garden in front of the cottage. We started dreaming of owning our own land.
One day our neighbour convinced us to take the day off, as it was such a beautiful morning. We were glad to do so, as we had been working non-stop since our arrival. We accepted her offer to look after our children and set off for a mountain hike. I remember that day as though it were yesterday. From high on a mountainside we could see the whole Sneem valley with the high peaks beyond it, the Sneem estuary, the Kenmare Bay and the Beara Peninsula. Below us and in the far distance, small islands added to the incredible charm of the place.
We were seriously asking ourselves, with tears on our eyes, if we had somehow died and slipped into Paradise without realizing it. It seemed like God’s reward for taking the risky step of leaving our old life behind to look for a better one. That was the moment we decided to stay in Sneem for good.
It was not an easy decision, as we had thoroughly enjoyed the traveling, but we remembered our vision of the new life. We had found what we were looking for. If we were to reject the chance the Universe had given us, would we get another?
But this was only the start. As our decision was final and there was no time to lose, we started looking for land. We arranged to buy an acre next to the ruin that we rented and we started to make ourselves more comfortable by parking the truck permanently and adding a veranda to it.
In the back of our minds we weren’t entirely sure if this was the ideal spot for what we had planned, but things seemed to fall into place as if they were meant, so we just went with the flow. Then, on the day before the deal was to be finalised, the owner of the land backed out and refused to sell it to us. That was a great shock, more so because Yvonne had just discovered that she was pregnant, so we urgently needed more living space. A total of 10 Square metres were just about OK for the four of us, but it would be very tight with a baby!
We had become great friends with the first person we had met in Sneem and were in fact working together with him at that stage. Adrian was turning wooden candlesticks on a lathe that I had brought from Germany. They sold well alongside our candles and we encouraged each other in our enterprises.
One morning we had a visitor. Bob had just found some land for sale but it was far too big for him to buy on his own. It was just luck that he told us, as he had no idea that we were looking for land, nor did any of us know that Adrian was also thinking of settling down, buying some land and planting a forest on it.
The land was 18 acres of overgrown jungle, full of blocked field drains and difficult to walk through. There was a roofless dry-stone ruin and about 8 acres of boggy hillside that seemed suitable for forestry, in local opinion it was all wasteland, but it was exactly what we were looking for.
We had it divided into plots suitable for the various different uses we had in mind, put a proportional value on each plot and worked out how much we were prepared to pay for the lot. We met the Auctioneer (outside a pub!) and discovered that there was someone bidding against us. 10% over what we had budgeted we agreed the price. Deposits were put down and the final payment was to be made after the land had been properly surveyed. Subdivided and mapped. That gave Yvonne and me 3 months to come up with our share, and we were still a long way from having the full amount due. As we had no cash and so history with the banks there was no change of getting a loan. All we could do was to take a big gamble!
After paying the deposit, we put every penny into the candle business, buying new materials to increase the value of our product and booking stalls at all the big craft shows in Ireland. The children would soon need new cloths and shoes, but that would have to wait,. We had £40 a week for all our needs and it was sometimes tough going. The lorry was small and it became damp during the winter. There was nowhere to put things and on many nights we had to share our sleeping-quarters with the children as their quarters were too cold or they were ill. During the day, our bed was the playing, eating and relaxing area. No, it was not easy, but….
The fruits of our gamble were about to appear. Although we were now stony-broke, we had a very large stock of candles ready for the run up to Christmas. We sold almost every one and were able to pay the rest of the money for the land. The foundation of our new life had been secured. “No matter what” we said to our self’s, ”we can never be homeless.” We partied hard after that.
Actually, we were still literally homeless (apart form the lorry) as there was a lot of work to be done on the new land before we could move onto it. Time was pressing, because of the imminent arrival of the new baby.
There wasn’t much that could be done on the land yet. We were broke, it was too early in the year to start any farm work and as yet, there was no proper access road. Also, everything had happened so fast that we needed time to get to know the land before we could plan how to use it.
One thing was obvious: we would need building materials. For me, as a carpenter, that meant timber. Adrian had developed a simple frame to guide a chain saw along a tree-trunk and cut any size of beam or plank from it. He had also made a deal on some fallen spruce trees in a swampy area of forestry that would be unreachable with heavy logging machinery.
I copied Adrian’s milling-frame and together we spent the rest of the winter cutting beams and boards in the weeds and stacking them neatly so that they would dry out a bit before we carried them to the nearest road. Although we each cut for our own needs, working together gave us the strength to carry on through many miserably wet and cold days.
We still had not found suitable accommodation and were close to desperation when we got the use of the Pier Collage for a year in exchange for keeping it dry, warm and in acceptable repair. This offer was more than kind, as the cottage was in anything likes as bad a shape as the owner made out. In fact, it was a Godsend and I will never forget the kind lady who was brave enough to let her collage to an unknown family of foreigners.
Anyone who believes in angels will agree that we had many of them helping us along our path. We moved in just a month before our son Joshua was born. The house was filled with joy and we felt warm, safe and secure. We had made it again!
With the summer came the candle-making season and they sold just as well to the tourists as they had during the Christmas season. We used some of the money to buy standing larch Trees – chosen for their durability – in a nearby forest. Adrian and I felled them and I hired a mobile band saw to shape the timber to my measurements.
We planned to construct a traditional post and beam barn, nice to live in while we built our proper house and useful later as both workshop and barn.
The land was so overgrown that it seemed 10 times it’s actual size. We had to use brush-cutters and saws to clear the fields of briars, gorse and rushes. Fallen willow trees blocked the field drains. The original entrance to the property had completely disappeared. It took many weeks of manual labour to unblock the drains and re-build the old road. Although it was all hard work it was incredibly satisfying as the landscape was slowly revealed and we could see it’s own unique character. There were rock ridges, grassy slopes and pockets and two small streams that met at the bottom of the biggest fields. Uncovering all this was a bit adventure for our children and they came to love the land as much as we did.
We put a new roof on the ruined cottage and put in a ground four and a first floor made from the spruce logs we had milled during the winter. Second had windows and corrugated iron from the scrap-yard were meant to keep the weather out but they didn’t always do so. However, we were able to set up the candle workshop in the new space.
We decided to build a barn that can be used as both, a stable and a house. An unexpected problem arose. The person who had bought the plot the north of ours now madeunreasonable difficulties over the long agreed access route to our land. We had no choice but to bring all the timber to the back entrance of our plot and then carry or drag it across the fields to the site. I roped the biggest logs to a donkey cart and got between the shafts myself. Going downhill was always too fast for my liking but I needed the momentum to cross a boggy patch in a dip and then get up the other side.
Meanwhile, Yvonne was carrying two planks at a time while still carrying the baby in a sling. We slept like logs at night, even though every bone was aching.
Instead of a concrete foundation (which we couldn’t afford) we raised timber sole plates on logs of cypress wood and continued the upright from there. We knew that one day, when we had enough money, we would have to dig underneath them and lay a proper concrete and steel foundation. We hired a generator for the power tools and started on the timber. There seemed to be a mountain of weed to be measured, cut and chiselled and the summer and autumn flew by. Friends were helping out when things got too heavy for us, but soon we would have to stop working on the house and start making candles for the Christmas fairs.
Then we had troubles with the planning department. They reckoned that we were building a house, not a barn, and wanted us to cease all construction. Their suspicions were not entirely unjustified, but we man aged to convince them that no one would want to live in a place as bare and draughty as this and they left us alone.
The barn stood empty over the winter but it had a roof and was dry. We made as many candles as we could, prepared for the craft fairs and, lucky, sold out again.
The first things we bought with our freshly earned money were close to a hundred fruit trees and bushes.
We knew it would be ages before they bore fruit, so it was important to get them planted as early as possible.
We finally moved into the barn in April, even though the wind blowing throw the gaps in the timber cladding, sometimes blew out the candles which were our only source of light. In fact, this new way of life really was back-to-basics!
We had no running water for the first 2 weeks and only cold water after that. Once a week we had bath day. We would heat the water on our smoky old range and then take turns to wash in the round plastic tub in the middle of the kitchen floor. We then used the bathwater to soak clothes in before hand washing them. Anyone who wanted or needed a bath at other times had to use the garden hose, even in the middle of winter.
One day some spilt water actually froze on the kitchen floor. That was the day we decided to buy a gas heater to take the edge of the cold.
The day we got a gas geyser for the hot water was a memorable one for all of us, as were the days when we finally, after 6 years, got electricity and a phone.
We did keep the bucket toilet until we moved to the new house.
It was tough, but we enjoyed every bit of it. We were free of social pressure, had time for our children and lived in and with nature. What more could we want?
We bought our first 2 calves in the first year we lived on our land and reared them with a suckle bucket to get them hand tame. In later years we got pigs and poultry. We started a vegetable garden straight away and it got bigger every year.
We had a happy family and one of our great joys was that the children were always around us!
At this time we still had no electricity and had only the old kitchen range for hot water. Firewood was mostly cut by hand – that way it warms you twice and you also use less of it.
With our first farm born calve we started making cheese, yoghurt and butter – not always easy without a fridge but where there’s a sill there’s a way. After our cow, Manja, got used to being milked it was possible to milk her in the middle of the field without tying her up. When she’d had enough she would gently step backwards without knocking the bucket over. However, she also had her impatient days, or she would spot a particularly tasty plant and dash off without warning to eat the discovery, in case it wasn’t there later.
Living off the land also meant that we had to eat what we grew when it grew. This meant that our table in early spring was very poorly supplied. The garden would be planted but the harvest was months away and we had many days of leek and pumpkin, or pumpkin and leek and cheese or spaghetti and cheese or spaghetti with leek and pumpkin….
No surprise that we haven’t really eaten pumpkin since!
As the years progressed we had enough money to supplement our diet with bought food during the winter. All the same, preserving food for spring is an essential part of homestead farming and looking at the full shelves in our food store makes me feel as others must feel when they have a full bank account.
We signed up with the WWOOF organisation and many people came to stay with us to learn about living on the land. Sometimes their friends or relatives would come and stay the following season. It was great for us because they came from all over the world so we learned a lot about far away places without actually having to go there. We made great friends and had a lot of help with the gardening and farm work, which we couldn’t always have managed on our own. There were many tearful farewells and we only regret that we lost touch with most of them after a while.
We felt blessed by the Universe to be able to live this lifestyle on this land. It didn’t take long before others were drawn to the place. We invited a couple travelling with a horse to camp on our land for a while. The pair became 3, the horse became 2 and the while became over a year, if you allow someone to live somewhere you have to let them have their visitors too. So there visitors became more and more numerous and even stayed around when the original pair was away. Our place became known locally as the Hippie Commune. We met a lot of interesting people who had a lot to share and were nice to have around for a while. There were both good and bad experiences but we soon felt terribly used and were more than glad when everybody finally moved on. The large pile of rubbish they left us behind bore witness to a thoughtless attitude that we had experienced in many people who blamed society for all the world’s evils while walking away from their own responsibilities.
We made our candle making business more efficient by developing specializes machinery that allowed us to almost mass-produce even the most intricate candles. Just about then, a German turned up with a tragic story. He had lost all his family in a car crash and had come to Ireland to get away from the memories. He claimed to be expecting payment for his small home craft business and offered to help out wherever he could. He seemed such an innocent honest fellow. He started a trade for friend’s hand-made puppets and ornamental sheep and offered to market our candles on his sales tours as well. The only condition was, that he wanted to give customers 30 days credit. This sounded fair enough, but as you will have already guessed, we never saw a penny and lost several thousand pounds.
This almost broke us, as not only had we lost all our product but we had also started employing people that summer (as the business was going so well!!) and now we had to find the money to pay them, We had to sell our big planning machine and some other tools in order to buy more materials and pay some of the bills.
We tried to track him down after he vanished and learned that he had conned many people, not only around Sneem but wherever he had stayed before. We could follow his trail all the way to Galway and news came back from many others, who had lost money to him,
Sadly, our solicitor advice was that although we might win in a court case, we would never see our money again and might even lose more in expenses.
Things go uphill again
Over the years, we had built a hexagonal building adjoining the cottage. With 2 large entrance arches it had served us well as workshop (downstairs) and candle store (upstairs). It has a pencil-point roof with 3 dormer windows and a door leading to the upper floor of the cottage. Originally the roof was only timber covered with torch and felt, but later we were able to afford fibreglass and rosin. It was now time to transform this shell into living quarters, as although we had made the barn quite cosy it was not ideal for living in.
We did everything ourselves, with the help of friends, family and Woofers.
We started with the bathroom. It was the first room to be almost finished and we started using it straight away. What a pleasure it was to have a shower in a bathroom instead outside with the garden hose, where you had to shout to someone in the Kitchen to turn the heat up or down!
It was all hands on deck on a very low budget and we got the house finished in less than six months. We didn’t intend to move in yet, but we did spend one night camping out in the living room. After that, we never slept in the barn again and gradually moved all our things over as well. This made finishing the job a little harder and in fact the cork floor for the bathroom hasn’t been laid to this day. The rooms upstairs aren’t big but each of the children had their own.
An open fire and a range that’s connected to radiators in all the rooms heat’s the house. We really enjoyed our first winter in our new home! It was also important to us that when our children started school in Kenmare they should come from a respectable home with a proper bathroom, so they could bring there friends home without being embarrassed.
After 10 years of candle making, we couldn’t stand it an more. Candle production for the summer season became like a prison sentence, it got so bad that we stopped making candles altogether. Now we needed to find another source of income. I was already a member of the fire brigade and got paid for that, but it wasn’t enough. Yvonne got a job caring for the elderly and I started producing panoramic images and computer aided compositions of the local area, which brought in a bit of extra money for a while.
The blueberry garden was becoming more and more productive and we built a big net cage over it to protect it from the birds. In 2010 we had a mega-harvest and started selling blueberries and apples in the local market and shop. Soon, we hope to be selling blueberry jam and other blueberry products too.
We are realizing that our non-farming activities were taking too much of our energy away from the farm. We decided it was time to come back to our original dream: to work on the farm, be as self-sufficient as possible and show others that it can be done!
We feel that we have been entrusted with a magical place and the gift of a fantastic life. We have never regretted a single day of our new life, no mater how hard some of them turned out to be.
We hope that our story will encourage anyone who is thinking of doing something similar.