Livin off the Hook is the story of a young family from Ireland who have exchanged convention for adventure; hitting the road with an ever-present sense of wonder.
Is it really possible to drop everything? To forget about home, jobs, utility bills and the daily grind; then simply setting off on the road with two young kids in a camper van to travel around Europe. It sounds like a daydream. How could anyone be so spontaneous; so brave?
Well, this is exactly what Niamh Colfer has done, along with her husband and two children.
Exploring Roman ruins, hiking, beachcombing, home-schooling, yoga training and crochet have become the new normal for this dynamic family of four since they first took to the road in June of 2018.
Captivated by their story, My Good Planet decided to track down Niamh so that we could find out all about her wonderful decision, and maybe even figure out an escape plan we could follow for ourselves.
MGP: What inspired, or prompted, you to make the huge decision to start ‘livin’ off the hook‘?
We are from the Hook Peninsula in the south east corner of Ireland, in County Wexford, and our house is just up the road from Hook Lighthouse: the oldest operational lighthouse in the world.
Liam and I met while working there in 2009. We had been travelling for a couple of years separately up until that summer. I had spent a few years living and working in New Zealand, France and backpacking around Asia, while Liam worked in Australia and backpacked around India and Nepal. So, I guess once you experience something like that it’s always in you; adventure, freedom, curiosity.
We had often booked short holidays and weekends away, always looking for somewhere to explore but, since the children came, it got quite expensive to take short holidays, so they became less frequent and we craved a new adventure.
It was last winter when we decided to plan a long term journey. Livin’ off the Hook, not only physically living off the peninsula, but also living alternatively. Our decision to home educate the children gave us the freedom to do it, and also a sense of empowerment. We had stepped outside our comfort zones and found something wonderful in it. We decided to put our minds to it straight away and not put it off.
MGP: What sort of reaction did you receive from family & friends when you told them about your plans? Were they shocked? Supportive? Cautious?
I think many family members were shocked in a funny kind of way, maybe a hint of disbelief and sceptical that we would actually follow through but, at the same time, fully supportive. I think many people expected us to be home within a couple of weeks.
The great thing is we’re only a short flight away (from home), and we’ve been lucky to have some visitors over along the way. Our camper van is, funnily enough, quite spacious and can sleep 6 comfortably so, when family members fly over, they can even have their own bed in the van. My Mam and Dad have been over to explore northern Spain with us and will be flying over again in a few weeks to explore Portugal. My sister Siobhán and her son Patrick, who is the same age as Ellen & Alex, flew over around Christmas to see southern Spain with us. It’s always so lovely to pick them up at the airport and just chill, catch up & sight-see together.
We talk to our families on the phone quite frequently and keep in touch via social media too, but our Camper Van door is always open to friends and family who can visit us anytime.
MGP: How you manage to fund your amazing life on the road?
We simply worked and saved our asses off. Paying our last mortgage payment last January was a huge benefit to us and allowed us to save money. We had less than a year to save every penny and so we lived as frugally as possible. Liam worked days at Hook Lighthouse and I was working as a personal trainer from our garage gym at home in the evenings. We sold many of our belongings too, we cleared out so many things from our house and we sold any bits and pieces that were worth anything, clothes, toys, some of my gym equipment, unused gadgets, furniture, even our car and that was enough to get us going.
Life is no different on the road and we still live frugally. Europe is well catered for the van-life and there are lots of amazing places where we can park up for free; even services are mostly free such as filling and draining water. Many of the tourist attractions are also free or sometimes very cheap so we avail of that of have seen some spectacular castles, lighthouses, museums and monuments all over France, Portugal and Spain.
We are a vegan family so our shopping is quite cheap, we buy fresh fruit and vegetables from the local markets and stock up on nuts, grains, beans, pulses, lentils in bulk when we can, so we spend only about €80-€100 on food every week. Thankfully the wine is pretty cheap too.
The biggest expense is fuel, diesel for the camper van. It’s great when we’re making small trips but longer trips can be quite expensive, so we tend to enjoy smaller trips and when we find somewhere that we love, or if we bump into another van-life family we could stay there for weeks and save a lot of money that way.
We’ve met a few families travelling long term in their vans like us. In fact we have a group on Facebook to share ideas, arrange meetups if we’re near each other and often we organise book or toy swaps too.
MGP: How difficult / easy is home schooling?
We had talked about home-schooling since before the children were born. At first I worried about the word I’ve grown to hate… “socialisation” and researched the overwhelming choice of curriculums, philosophies and methods but once we started and allowed Ellen and Alex the freedom to express and learn themselves, I immediately let go of my worries and completely trust the natural learning process.
Here we are, seven months into our adventure travels of Europe in our camper van and we’ve learned a lot. We (I say we because we’re learning too) learn about geography, history, science, nature, language, culture, tradition, politics, life skills and learn a lot from all of the people that we meet.
The kids are very interested in nature and human history, growing more curious since our time in northern Spain where we explored the amazing caves of Cantabria, some with pre-historic cave art. We learned so much there, seeing first hand how Neanderthals and early humans lived, ate, hunted, how they used tools and turned stone into paint to make cave art.
We have met some amazing people and we have seen some outstanding places so far; from the biggest sand dune in Europe, to real dinosaur footprints along northern Spain’s Jurassic coast. We have learned about Pirates, the Royals, even the Romans, and explored many Roman ruins throughout France and Spain.
Aside from learning through travelling to all these great places, the kids have lots of workbooks which they pick up from time to time and work on some educational apps on their tablets. They also have their own travel journals which they write in every week; each has a map of the world and they know exactly where we are and where we may go.
As well as learning academic subjects naturally, using their own motivation, they learn many practical and creative things too; not only from observing and helping Liam and I, but also from the people that we meet. They are naturally curious, very social and they observe and question everything and I couldn’t be more happy and excited for them.
I don’t know just yet what the future holds for them in this schooling sense. Their opportunities are endless and there are always lots of options. We may stay in Europe and continue to home-school / road-school or we may choose to enroll them in a school here. Thankfully there are a few schooling options on the continent and we are drawn to the Waldorf or Steiner schools which we’ve seen quite a few of along the way. We’ve come across a couple of home-schooling or world-schooling communities which are groups of home educating families from all over the world that meet up in areas around Europe. We may even set up our own community one day, who knows what the future holds.
MGP: Where do you see your travels taking you in the future? Can you see yourself ever wanting to settle down again or stay on the road?
We’ve always been open to new opportunities and generally don’t plan too far ahead. We would love to continue to travel but it all depends on how far we can stretch our funds. At the same time, we would also love to settle down somewhere, not necessarily in Ireland but possibly somewhere else. We have met a few families from other parts of Europe living sustainably and self sufficiently and this is something we are very interested in. So far, we haven’t needed to work but we have done some volunteering and both of these options are also open to us. I recently qualified as a Yoga teacher and am busy making crochet pieces and patterns to sell through my online shop. Liam is very handy and mechanically minded and always comes up with solutions to whatever he puts his mind to so between us we can put our hands and minds to any project.
We love moving and travelling but if we find a spot that we all love and it works for us we may settle for a while. We are quite enjoying the warmer winters here in southern Spain & Portugal and feeling happy, healthy and inspired.
MGP: Tell us a little about where/how you happened to learn the art of crochet and do you sell it?
I learned to crochet when I was Ellen’s age (6). My grandmother Eileen (who Ellen is named after) taught me and, from then on, you would often find me by my Nanny’s side; crocheting in her conservatory, or at the stitching group she set up.
She passed away in 2011 and I miss her very much. I inherited many of her crochet books and some of her crochet and Irish lace treasures including her wedding dress which was made by her mother (my great-grandmother) in 1952 and I got to wear her dress in 2012 when Liam and I got married; one year after she left us.
Crochet and lace-making is just something I’m really passionate about. I love creating new pieces, designing and writing my own patterns and I am mostly inspired by my Nannys collection of antique books and of course the pieces that she and her mother made which I still wear all the time.
I started a shop on Etsy, which is an online store for hand crafted pieces and you can order crochet and crochet lace clothes, tops, bags, accessories and even patterns. I also have a YouTube channel where I upload free tutorial to learn crochet for beginners right up to advanced lessons in Irish crochet lace.
Lately, Ellen has been really keen to learn crochet and I’m delighted to be able to teach her.
You can follow @Livinoffthehook on Instagram and travel the world along with them.