Two’s company

Company: Middle English from Old French compaignon, literally ‘one who breaks bread with another.’

Isn’t ‘companionship’ a wonderful word? For me, it is imbued with a sense of warmth, comfort and reassurance like a well-worn pair of hiking boots or a slice of hot buttered toast. It’s about being together without fuss or bother, without any drama or making demands; a gentle sharing of time and place that enhances and enriches all those involved.

One of the things I’m dabbling in this year is companion planting in the garden. I last tried it some years ago in our French garden, but we were there for such a short time I didn’t really get to do it justice. I realise that it’s a concept – along with permaculture, no-dig, biodynamics and the like – that has orthodox eyebrows hitching and twitching but I’m happy to embrace such things, or at least give them a go. As far as I’m concerned, this doesn’t make me a dippy hippy, fluffy bunny, tree hugging eco-nut (but if that’s the worst that critics have to say, carry on). I don’t think there is a problem giving credence to ‘alternative’ ideas even if they haven’t been wholly scientifically proven.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of time for science. I’ve recently been reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Just About Everything, a well-researched and fascinating book that had my head zinging with all things scientific (and some pretty amazing word etymology, too). One of the stark realisations, though, is just how relatively recent so much accepted knowledge is; I was astounded to learn that the plate tectonic theory I lapped up for O-level geography in the early eighties was only a couple of years older than me! As for particle physics . . . it seems the more bigger brains look at tinier things, the less we can be certain of anything. Why, then, should we disregard ancient wisdom simply because we believe we can do things better? Yes, there’s a lot of superstition and misconceptions out there but also a great deal of knowledge and understanding that comes from centuries of patient observation and practical application.

What’s the worst thing that could happen? Well, nothing. It’s possible that nothing will happen or be different or better or worse, but at the very least we should have a garden that is crammed with colour and life and food and I’m happy to go for that. The green manure I’m experimenting with is in its own way a kind of companion planting and so far all is going well. The white clover, phacelia and yellow trefoil are all bombing up and what an interesting and enthusiastic little plant buckwheat is; it’s already forming thick carpets and I love the way its lime heart-shaped leaves catch the light.

One of my key aims this year is to strive for fewer problems with our brassica crops, and in particular the damage wrought by caterpillars. To this end, I started by transplanting a couple of dill seedlings to each end of the calabrese rows where they stand like sentinels on guard for the first hint of fluttering white wings. There were already a few self-set nasturtiums in the vicinity so I added to their numbers, too. Coriander is supposed to be another good companion so I’ve sown a row between the brassicas and couldn’t resist an extra sprinkling of dill down one side. These two were both very old seed (I never replant as they set themselves so freely) so I knew they may not germinate but felt it was worth a try. Cue dill forest! Finally, I’ve been potting up roots of spearmint, partly in a bid to curb its march across the garden but also to create Mobile Mint Units that I can move about and place in strategic positions. Forget belt and braces, this is extra buttons, a new zip and probably a pair of spare trews, too . . . but if it keeps the beasties at bay, it will have been well worth the effort.

Elsewhere, I’ve been planting out basil. This is a great companion to so many things and with a hugely successful germination rate this year, I’ve been able to spread it far and wide, in the polytunnel, the garden and the fingers-crossed tomato patch. I’ve tucked some under the grapevine, along with an oregano and a couple of geraniums – just need to add hyssop and the grapevine band of friends will be complete. I goes without saying that many flowers act as companion plants by drawing in the pollinators and we are already a long way down the path with that one, especially the irrepressible self-setting crazies: calendula, nasturtium, borage, Californian poppies, field poppies, cerinthe and hollyhocks. Roger has gently suggested I might like to curb my indulgence of these rascals a tad and I have to concede, he has a point: this is the current state of the path along the bottom of the main vegetable patch and I suppose it’s not too unreasonable expecting to be able to walk along it?

As you can see, we’ve had to tread a new path above the floral chaos which eats into precious planting space . . . but just look at the vibrant gorgeousness of those graceful poppies, filling my heart with such joy! They are hosting a bumble bees’ feeding frenzy inside their silken petals so who am I to disturb them?

There’s another frenzy in action along the fence line of the top veg patch, this time in the form of the passion flower. If ever there was a successful pairing, then it must be this showy seductress and the Asturian climate; if it weren’t for the indomitable kiwi, I would say I’ve never seen anything grow faster. This year’s floral spectacular has just begun . . .

. . . but now she’s taking things literally to new heights. This flower is halfway up a peach tree!

Moving in the opposite direction down the fence, the passion flower is also mingling companionably with the pink-flowered jasmine beesianum, which in complete contrast has to be one of the most disappointing specimens I’ve planted here. The flowers are tiny and totally underwhelming; even now the plant itself is beginning to spread itself in graceful evergreen arches, the impact of colour and scent is minimal. Perhaps I’m spoilt by the sheer allure and verve of the white jasmine but there is a certain despondency about this plant; I’m really not a fan.

However, there are always two sides to a story and not everyone shares my gloomy opinion: those minuscule flowers are a bumble bee magnet, the whole plant literally thrums with their excited attentions. They visit each little pink trumpet for a nanosecond, so capturing one in a photo was a study of extreme patience and a lot of good luck.

I adore colour, crave it in my life, in fact; it’s one of the many, many reasons I love Spain so much. At this time of year, the garden and wild areas pop and explode with joyful, reckless exuberance that has me turning cartwheels. I would make a hopeless garden designer, those elegant, sophisticated borders of limited hues – so clever, so beautiful – are really not my style. I need rainbows, paintboxes, confetti cannons, everything mingling and jingling, clashing and clamouring and knitted together only by the calming influence of green. The local way of growing flowers – stuffing bits and pieces into every nook and cranny, then letting them do their own thing – suits me so well. I might not have deep borders of stylish perennials but this kaleidoscope effect makes me so happy; it’s like a giant tube of Smarties!

I also love those little dabs of unexpected colour, the wild things that have invited themselves to the party.

As the season shifts a gear and the temperature shuffles up a few notches, the geraniums (or pelargoniums, if you prefer) really come into their own. They are such reliable doers and I love their brazen attitude, shamelessly flaunting their bright hues for months on end.

Mind you, the roses are not averse to dabbling in a bit of that pink-and-red- together nonsense, too.

Sweet William has emerged from its feathery buds to drive the butterflies to distraction with its clove-scented velvety vivaciousness.

In relatively muted tones, the globes of alliums add a modish touch with their beguiling starry globes . . .

. . . while the audacious delosperma explodes in an unapologetic fountain of shocking pink against the terracotta walls.

Of course, it is possible to have too much of a good thing so I welcome the pointillist spots of cool whites bringing light and levity to the colour riot and spangling the moonlit garden with silvery stars. What a range of personalities we have now, from sculpted waxen rosebuds to the lacy bridal froth of coriander.

Funny how nature has a way of adding a dab of colour even here . . .

Bitter leaves are something of an acquired taste but we love them so as part of my recent seed spree, I bought a packet of radicchio ‘Palla Rosa 3’ to plant later in the season and also chicory ‘Brussels Witloof’ which I’ve already popped into the ground. We last grew chicory in the aforementioned French garden and it was a huge success; it’s a strange thing, growing magnificent leafy plants just to lift them, reduce them to roots and bury them in boxes of compost in the dark. The resulting chicons are delicious, though – we always indulge in some when we are in France so what a treat it will be to have our own. The short row of wild rocket in the polytunnel just refuses to stop growing and go to seed; it provides the perfect companion for the beetroot growing next to it in a heady colourful combination of bitter and sweet on the plate and palate.

With the porch re-roofed and newly decorated, the major house renovation work is finished at long, last. Almost three years to the day we moved here, we finally have our very own hogar, dulce hogar! After so many months as working partners, it’s lovely at last to have the time to be walking partners and enjoy a relaxed evening stroll from home. My favourite route is the two-mile wander through woodlands to the small river that cuts a deep valley beyond the house; it is particularly beautiful at this time of year when the landscape is so very, very green.

I have tried before to describe the sheer depth and scale of this verdant paradise but words always seem so inadequate. Forget the tranquil weaving harmonies of Vivaldi’s spring idyll; this is Beethoven’s 5th on steroids, a roaring, rumbustious chlorophyll-fuelled symphony of bursting life and new growth.

The chestnuts are always the last to arrive but they have tiptoed noiselessly onto stage in the past two weeks; the woodland cast is now complete.

There are plenty of supporting characters playing their parts, too. Foxgloves drift in elegant spires, their freckled bells a delirium of bee activity.

The dappled shade reveals cool beauties . . .

. . . whilst splashes of sunlight host butterflies, blue as dainty shards of sky.

There is a magic to this place: the interplay of sunlight and shadow, leaf and lichen, boulders and birdsong, moss and mountain. I lose myself in the gentle babbling of clear water on rock, the peaty scent of damp earth and sun-warmed bark, the enfolding peaceful wildness of it all. Asturias may have been the cradle of Spanish Christianity but there lingers a pagan song here, an untamed green heart beating to a more ancient rhythm.

So, home again and time to reflect on how far the last three years have brought us. What a mad journey of adventure in a new land. What a crazy, quirky, little home in a stunning landscape.

What a very special place this is to live, love and enjoy each other’s company. Who needs any more than that? 🙂

Ageing gracefully: run, stretch, balance and breathe.


Just because you’re grown up and then some doesn’t mean settling into the doldrums of predictability. Surprise people. Surprise yourself.

Victoria Moran

Something very strange is happening to me. I set out for a run one morning this week, aiming to do 8k (5 miles); in the end, I ran more than 11k (7 miles), including the hard slog up the final hell hill which is a climb of 70 metres over a kilometre (or 230 feet in 0.6 miles). When Roger asked me  – as he always does – how my run had been, my answer was, “It was great!”Shock. Horror. Hold the front page. This does not happen. I’ve been running for a while now but I’ve never, ever learned to love it. Runs are hard or terrible but never great. So what has changed? Well, I’m starting to feel fitter and stronger because I’ve committed seriously to regular running and other stuff (of which more later) . . . and that’s all down to a rather special little booklet that Roger has recently been given by the British Masters Athletic Federation.

An easy read over a cup of tea but a big message to influence the rest of our lives.

Before I go any further, please let me say that I am not trying to preach or tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be doing. I wouldn’t dream of it. The reason I wanted to write this post is partly to share what we are doing to keep fit and active as part of our simple lifestyle but also to reassure anyone (particularly our age or older) who might have doubts about giving exercise of any kind a go. Believe me, if I can do it, anyone can. Don’t worry about what other people might think, this is about you. You don’t have to be good at it, you don’t have to ‘look the part’, you don’t have to compete or win anything. There is a difference between exercise and sport. Be kind to yourself, smile at yourself and have fun. You might surprise other people. You will certainly surprise yourself. Yes, I’m a wild-haired, 52 year-old granny plodding about the Spanish countryside in bright pink trainers come rain or shine. Crazy? Quite possibly. Living life to the full? Definitely . . . and hoping to be doing the same for many years to come.

The penultimate runner in a long, hard race: very hot, very tired, very slow but very happy . . . and my own police escort to boot!

Back to that booklet. It succinctly summarises a Manchester Metropolitan University research project focused on continuing (or even starting!) exercise into old age. It’s a fascinating report and one which, given the demographics of an ageing population, should be a recommended – if not compulsory – read, as it is about everyone, not just master athletes, and contains a message which could change and enhance many lives. According to the researchers, currently around two out of three older adults do not meet the recommended levels of physical activities which has serious consequences for health and mobility in later life. Well, that stands to reason, doesn’t it? Human bodies are made to move at any age, to walk, run, jump, bend, stretch, climb, twist and generally be anything other than mostly sedentary. As long as there is no serious underlying illness then raising our heart rate, breathing hard and having temporarily aching muscles is a good thing. What an incredible inspiration someone like Eileen Noble is; she didn’t start running until she was in her fifties and has just become the oldest lady to run the London Marathon two years in a row. She’s 84. How fantastic.

(For anyone interested, the brochure can be read online here http://bmaf.org.uk/health-well-being-performance-improvement )

That exercise and well-being go hand in hand is pretty irrefutable but trying to maintain an adequate level of activity whilst working or raising a family is incredibly hard, especially in those long months of dark days and grim weather. It takes a special kind of discipline and resolve to keep at it. One of the huge benefits of our life here is having the luxury of time
like we’ve never had before to exercise fully and regularly over and above our usual daily activities. It can be hard though, believe me; we are so programmed to that subconscious charge that we should be ‘doing something’ that spending time away from chores to exercise feels like an indulgence, even though it’s the very best gift we can ourselves. We don’t know whether we will live to a ripe old age but we are both determined to stay as fit and active as we can for as long as we can.

I like the way the booklet emphasises the continuing importance of being busy outside ‘training’ times, too; it’s not about doing a session of exercise then doing nothing for the rest of the day but keeping active with things like gardening, housework, shopping and walking. Put aside sleeping hours and most of the day is taken up with being on the move as opposed to being on the sofa.

Who needs dumbbells? Lifting and hauling several of these full to the brim every day is great weight training.

Let me talk about running a bit, not because I’m a keen runner or a good one; in fact, precisely because I am neither of those things. I am not naturally sporty and have never particularly enjoyed the sensation of moving at anything faster than a brisk walk. I started running several years ago on medical advice and I hated it. I’m still not a fan, and it doesn’t seem to get any easier, but I keep doing it because the benefits to physical and mental health are well-documented and undeniable (my resting pulse rate and blood pressure have both fallen significantly in recent months) . . . and – hand on heart – I always feel better afterwards. Of course, there are other aerobic activities to choose from but the beauty of running is that it is so low-maintenance. You don’t need to be taught how to do it. You don’t need a partner or team. It’s virtually carbon-neutral (completely so if you run naked and barefoot, although I appreciate that’s probably not an option for most of us! 🙂 ) It’s cheap. You don’t need a bike or a swimming pool or a dance studio or gym membership or piles of hi-tech gear; just a pair of comfy trainers will do the job and, as long as it’s safe, you can run pretty much anywhere starting from your front door. I am very lucky in having to look no further for help and encouragement than Roger who, in athletic terms, is at the completely opposite end of the spectrum to me. He runs every day, sometimes twice, without fail; he runs very fast and wins lots of trophies; he’s ridiculously disciplined and incredibly fit. He’s also living, running, speedy proof that grandads can still gallop!

Number 74 heading for another trophy!

He only ever has two pieces of advice, though, and these have helped me hugely. The first is to run to how you feel: if you are feeling relaxed and going well, try for distance; if you are full of beans, add some strides and a faster section; if you’re tired, achy or just generally in a ‘I don’t want to do this’ mood, just go for a short, gentle leg stretch at a leisurely pace, breathing in the fresh air, listening to the birds, enjoying the wildflowers . . . but GO! The second is that if you want to run miles, then you need to run miles. Don’t worry about training schedules or plans, forget tempo runs, fartlek and the rest, don’t angst over cross-training: just lace up your running shoes and run. I do. It’s not just the physical activity, either: time spent outside in the fresh air is hugely beneficial to body and soul. In his brilliant book The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk describes how modern humans have become ‘homo encapsularis’, spending 80-90% of their time indoors and missing out on the many advantageous factors for physical and mental well-being that time in the great outdoors has to offer. Hippocrates claimed that nature is the best physician; well, he knew a thing or two, I suppose!

I’d expected the report to talk about aerobic exercise, weight training and flexibility but what came as a bit of a surprise was the section on balance and, more specifically, the importance of being able to balance on one leg for a sustained period with your eyes closed. Go on, try it! We amused ourselves (and probably several other people as well) testing this on our last ferry sailing; well, it’s a very long six hours of inactivity and you can only read so much. The slight bounce of a relatively calm sea added a frisson of excitement and much hilarity to our attempts but on a serious note, this is something we need to address. My balance isn’t actually too bad so I’d fondly imagined that it would be enough to add a few extra challenging postures to my standard yoga practice but delving deeper, it seems that tai chi is the most recommended activity (along with standing on one leg to clean your teeth or tie your shoelaces). I have to admit that tai chi isn’t something that’s ever appealed to me but to be fair, I didn’t really know much about it it. So, with the bit firmly between my teeth, I tracked down a small but useful secondhand book on the subject and watched a couple of short YouTube clips . . . then I had a go.

Well, it looks pretty simple . . .

Oh my goodness, but it is so much harder than it looks! I’m not sure about improving balance but trying to sort out my left and right, above and below, over and under and all sorts of other positional things whilst mirroring the video instructors, it certainly felt like some pretty strenuous brain gym. Graceful, I am not. For White Crane Spreads Wings try Ostrich Does Face Plant: this is going to need oodles of practice and patience. Roger has suggested we learn together and that’s an idea I love. We walk a lot as a couple but rarely run together and where he will do a session of strength work, weights and stretches, I will opt for yoga every time so what a treat to share this new experience. He has also suggested that if we lift the outdoor table to one side we can practise on the new terrace in the fresh air of early morning before the sun climbs over the mountain. How perfect . . . and if the tolerant folk in the village should look up and scratch their heads in puzzled amusement, then so be it. I’m more than happy to be labelled an eccentric Golden Rooster Stands On One Leg now if it means I can still Embrace Tiger, Return To Mountain when I’m eighty.

Not a bad backdrop for a little early morning stretching.

Good balance in part relies on core strength, those all important back, abdominal and pelvic area muscles that help to support and stabilise the spine. There are lots of activities that strengthen core muscles so as part of my new exercise commitment, I’ve opted to take the Ultimate Pilates 21-Day Challenge by Boho Beautiful    Now I hope at this point that Adrienne is sitting down because this will probably come as something of a shock to her; she has tried valiantly to interest me in Pilates several times and I have to confess I’ve never exactly bowled her over with my enthusiasm! However, I’m giving it another go and I especially like this exercise plan because it’s mixed through with lots of yoga. It will take me more than 21 days as I’m adapting it to fit around my running, which I do every other day. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I’ve discovered muscles I never even knew I had but already I can see a huge improvement. I’m using fewer modifications each time and feeling so much stronger when I run or spend the day on heavy gardening tasks. Even better, I’ve had to pull in my belts and adjust my bra straps  . . . and I seem to be back to the single chin I was born with. This is good!

Healthy eating is part and parcel of our approach: here, homemade pizza, mixed roasted vegetables and a pile of salad straight from the garden.

It’s amazing just how much inspiration can come from a small, free handout. It’s amazing just what human bodies can achieve, even as they age. I’m never going to have the speed or strength or poise of an athlete but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is to keep running and stretching, strengthening and balancing and breathing in that sweet, fresh air so that as I get older, I can still climb a mountain with my husband to watch the sun set or chase my grandchildren through the woods or just go out to run in the rain for the sheer joy of being alive. Hell, I might even master White Crane Spreads Wings. Now that can’t be a bad ambition for an old lady, can it? 🙂