From lockdown, with love

Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Alexander Pope

We are now in the third week of lockdown in Spain as the country continues its fight against the Covid-19 virus. What a wonderful (if tentative) moment of hope when last week it became clear that Asturias had moved beyond the peak as the number of new cases began to fall; the government here instigated measures several days before the declaration of a national state of alarm and so the principality is running a little ahead of the national situation. Of course, there is a long, long way to go yet and as keyworkers continue in their tireless and heroic efforts to save lives, to keep us safe and to maintain essential supply chains, for most people daily reality remains being confined en casa. The media focus tends to fall on the experience of people living in urban areas, which is quite understandable: that is where the vast majority of the population lives, many of them confined to small apartments with a tiny balcony their only window on the world. I give thanks every day that we have a beautiful garden and a stunning view, open space and limitless fresh air where we can breathe deeply, stretch our limbs and feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. We are very blessed.

However, it was interesting and refreshing one day last week to see the local online press reporting on the experience of rural dwellers in what is known as Asturias vaciada – emptied Asturias. Like many parts of Spain, Asturias has experienced mass rural depopulation over the last few decades, leaving a countryside littered with empty houses, meagre settlements and an elderly population. Our village is no exception; of the 26 dwellings here, half are unoccupied and as a couple in our fifties we are very much at the younger end of the age range. Local councils are working hard to provide round-the-clock help and care for vulnerable people living in these isolated areas whose situation at first glance might seem deeply concerning . . . and yet, the newspaper report shared a fascinating insight by one interviewee who made three wise and salient observations about the experience and resilience of rural people in these difficult and uncertain times.

The first point they made was that living in such relatively empty rural areas, it can be many days before you cross a neighbour’s path. ‘Isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are part and parcel of everyday life and as such, come as no surprise or hardship. For us, this is absolutely true. Even if I go out on a run (not currently, obviously!) that takes me down to the village, I only pass one house closely and more often than not, I don’t see our neighbours who live there. In another direction, I can walk or run for over two miles before I come to the first occupied house. I have lost count of the number of times we have gone out from home or further afield and walked for many hours without seeing another soul. If we stay at home, we can go for several days without seeing anyone unless our postman Ricardo comes down the lane or Jairo comes up to check his cows. I’ve read a lot lately about how human beings are social creatures who crave company but I think that’s a bit of a sweeping generalisation; I love Roger’s company, I enjoy communicating and spending time with others but I also delight in a bit of solitude and have always been completely comfortable on my own. If you are used to being alone, then loneliness is rarely an issue. If your daily routine isn’t built around contact and constant chatter, then silence is a pleasure, not a threat.

The second point made was that when people are used to producing their own food whether it be vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, meat, milk, eggs or whatever, when ‘normal’ life involves baking your own bread and making preserves, when meal planning starts with what you have at home, then there is no need to go to the shops regularly. The constraint of only being allowed to travel short distances to buy essential supplies doesn’t bring too many changes. Every occupied house in our village has a productive vegetable garden and fruit trees, and many have chickens, beehives and a pig. There are no doorstep supermarket deliveries but each week sees vans selling bread, frozen foods, cakes, fruit and vegetables and fresh fish arrive in the village – the drivers with hand on horn to announce their arrival – and this has continued through lockdown. We might live a long way from the nearest food shops and supermarket, we might be eating a lot of kale and squash and salad . . . but we are most definitely not going hungry.

Third, it was pointed out that if we spend our time caring for a few animals or tending a patch of land then our days are naturally filled with activities that are nurturing, absorbing and uplifting. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we are immune to the events or horrors of the wider world, just that our mental focus centres on a way of living that teaches us how to cope with the ups and downs of life, how to be pragmatic and optimistic and above all, keeps us grounded in the cycles and seasons of the natural world.

That final point resonated very strongly with me, which I’m sure will come as no surprise to regular readers; I make no secret of the fact that a close connection to nature is fundamental to my lifestyle and, most definitely, my wellbeing. Despite the worrying headlines and footage from around the world, and anxious thoughts about the safety of loved ones, if I can put my hands into the earth, sprinkle seeds, see the bright green fizz of new leaves unfurling, plunge my nose into flowers and hear the call of the cuckoo on the mountain, then I have hope and healing.

I love the idea of ‘listening to the land,’ an idea shared by Patrick Whitefield in The Earthcare Manual and Mary Reynolds in The Garden Awakening, two absorbing and inspiring books I have read and re-read in recent months. I particularly liked Patrick’s astute observation that if you ask someone to observe a garden or piece of ground they tend to reach for paper and pen and start to write notes or make sketches; on the other hand, asking them to close ther eyes and listen to the land leads to a stillness and focus and -ultimately – a much greater awareness of the feel of the place. This reminds me of the way in which the ancient druids used sensory deprivation as a powerful learning tool which heightened their awareness and creativity. With her love of Irish magic, Mary refers to the spirit of the land and both authors recognise the importance of acknowledging, recognising and honouring this quality in designing and caring for gardens. It’s a case of not asking, ‘What can we do with this land?’ but instead, ‘ How can we work with it?’ The two are often very different things! So, with this in mind, and given that we are at least allowed into the garden if not beyond, we have been spending our days working on some of the new projects I mentioned in an earlier post. (As these are ongoing activities, please bear in mind, some of the photos are several weeks old.)

First, our attempts to reduce the amount of ugly concrete. Having talked about a few possible ideas, we decided to start by removing a wide strip of concrete that runs from the yard to the field gate along the top of the vegetable patch; the path doesn’t need to be that wide and we hoped that by swapping the concrete for a planting area, we could capture a sense of the garden extending and flowing more naturally.

As with so many projects, making a start was the trickiest part as there’s no way of knowing whether it will be a success or not. Nothing for it, then, but to grab the sledgehammer and get stuck in . . .

Once Roger had made that start, things went pretty swimmingly although it never fails to astound me just how much rubble jobs like this create.

With the concrete lifted, the next job was to tackle the wall at the far end; as it holds the path up, it was important not to remove it. However, there was certainly scope for a radical overhaul as the wall had been cobbled together with bits of breeze block, bricks, metal mesh and a whole host of other rubbish in the unique style of ‘building’ we have become used to finding here. What was truly puzzling is that the area behind this dubious construction had been filled with flat stones just perfect for building a . . . wall!

I believe one of the best ways to listen to the land is to work with naturally occurring materials wherever possible and the local stone is no exception. Our house, barn and horreo were all originally built from the honey-coloured stone that is typical of the area and we have used it to build many terraces in the garden. The obvious thing to do here, then, was to remove the ‘rubble wall’ and replace it with a more attractive and far more appropriate dry stone one. With that done, and the ground dug over (and another huge pile of rubble dug out in the process) and a generous quantity of muck forked in, the new planting area was created. There’s no rush to plant it, though; I love the way that things spread and self-set so liberally here, so we’ll give nature free reign in the coming months and see what transpires.

Staying in the same area of the garden, and in the last couple of summers I have planted hanging baskets on the horreo, loving the idea of bright splashes of floral colour against that lovely stone. The results, I have to confess, have been a bit mixed; I’ve struggled to find plants that have been truly happy – even geraniums (pelargoniums) which grow like a weed here failed to really give it their best shot. Hanging baskets are not a common sight here and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a good reason for that, so it’s time for a radical rethink. I’ve ditched any thought of flowers (and let’s face it, we’re not exactly short of colour here) and I’m trying strawberries instead, using some of the spare plants we had in our bare-rooted bundle a few weeks ago. In place of my usual eucalyptus bark liner, I’ve gone for something completely different but definitely up my street: sheep’s wool. I have been meaning for months (um . . . years?) to sort out a huge bag of Manx Loaghton fleece, much of which is daggy and unspinnable, but which I’ve kept for just such an occasion. It was lovely time spent in the sunshine, putting aside a happy quantity of good stuff – there’s at least another teddy bear’s worth to be spun – and using the rest to make gorgeously deep, warm, soft basket linings. I then put a plant saucer in the base of each and filled the baskets to the top with our home-produced compost, before adding the plants. I’m looking forward to seeing how they go this year- just as long as the birds don’t help themselves to the wool for nests in the meantime!

The orchard makeover a few weeks ago was quite a project but already we are reaping the benefits of all the hard work. With paths dug out and stone steps built in, we can now weave our way around the whole area and climb up and down the steep slope without slipping and sliding like we did before. It is wonderful to be able to wander around and see how quickly things have grown and changed in such a short time. Our newly-planted fruit trees have settled in and are bursting into leaf, whilst the more established ones are scenting the air with their delicate blossoms.

There are wildflowers everywhere and it is incredible how such a rough, stony, inaccesible and ugly corner has been transformed into a delightful carpet of colour, buzzing with life. We certainly listened to the land with this project and nature hasn’t disappointed.

Staying with fruit and it has been quite a steep learning curve for us finding out what will and won’t grow well here. There were peaches, apricots, figs and pears here when we arrived, all of which thrive (as long as the blossom isn’t blasted in spring storms). To those trees we have added apples, cherries, plums, more pears, an orange, a lemon and a plum, all of which grow well locally. Soft fruit hasn’t been such a success. There were summer raspberries here but they were the most tasteless things on earth and even the birds wouldn’t touch them; I replaced them with autumn varieties which I prefer anyway (I think they have a better flavour and they don’t need all that faffing about with wires and cages). Blimey, how they grew, I had raspberry canes everywhere . . . but not a single flower and therefore no fruit, because our winter simply isn’t cold enough to give them the kick they need. Thankfully, the wild strawberries are hugely reliable and grow literally everywhere on our patch so I’m hoping our bigger, cultivated varieties will do as well.

Since we moved here, two local farmers have planted fields of blueberry bushes so that suggested they might grow happily here; well, yes and no. One of our three bushes has died but we did get a sprinkling of berries last year so I think the jury is still out on that one. As a bit of a bonus, though, last summer a mystery physalis plant appeared from nowhere growing out of a wall near the polytunnel. It’s not something we’ve ever grown here but nature obviously decided to plant it on our behalf.

To be honest, I’d pretty much forgotten about it; it set a few fruits but they didn’t mature (and I still didn’t know whether it was a cape gooseberry or a tomatillo) and over winter, the whole plant had disappeared under a swathe of red deadnettle. What a lovely surprise, then, to be foraging last week – it’s amazing how much more attention I pay to things in this lockdown situation, every moment outside is so precious – and find a lovely little picking of sweet and tasty fruits! Roger felt a rich dark chocolate mousse would be just the thing to set them off, and so it was. Here’s another fruit to put on the planting list, then.

Something new we are trying is redcurrants; we’ve always grown them in the past and miss them in summer puddings and redcurrant jelly which is such a useful ingredient in cooking, but we’ve never had them here. We decided to plant the bush below a couple of cardoons at the field end of the vegetable patch but were a bit concerned about the site being too exposed to the prevailing wind. Listening to the land once again, it seemed the obvious thing to do was to plant a small hedge to give a little protection, and what better way of doing that than lifting tree seedlings from around our patch? Well, any excuse for a wander through the woods.

Woodland is an environment that never fails to lift my spirits but there is something particularly special about this time of year when the leaves burst their buds to reveal fresh, glossy, new growth and the birds herald the season in a joyful cacophony of song. I was supposed to be looking for potential seedlings but found my eyes distracted ever upwards.

Luckily, there was no shortage of tiny trees pushing up through the leaf litter and we had soon lifted a collection of mixed varieties, including birch, oak, willow and bay. What a lovely thing, to gather a little part of the woodland to enjoy in the garden; four weeks on, our new hedge is growing vigorously and the redcurrant bush is looking very happy, too.

Back to the confines of the garden and we have been busy this week looking ahead to this year’s new harvests, planting out summer brassicas and lettuce, potting on tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers and squash, sowing beans and courgettes (and sweet peas! 🙂 ) and preparing a patch for the onion seedlings that are almost ready to transplant. There has been so much of the season to enjoy: the first resident swallow swooping through in the evening sunshine, the scurry of lizards everywhere, the busyness of flocks of goldfinches and serins flitting through the orchard, the warble of blackbirds ever earlier in the morning, the incessant bustle of bees and butterflies, the wriggle of fat tadpoles in our tiny pond, the sweep of a soft green haze through the woodlands, the pretty pink ruffles of the first roses and the heady scent of jasmine and freesias by the kitchen door.

My complete absorption in so much beauty and wonder in no way diminishes or trivialises the seriousness of the ongoing global situation; believe me, I am as anxious and concerned as the next person. It’s just that once more, I find great comfort in the continued cycle of the seasons, in the fact that nature goes on, spring happens, new life appears, the garden smiles with flowers and I smile with it. In fact, in these dark days I smile for the whole of humanity. A smile of kindness, a smile of love and a smile of hope. Whoever you are, wherever you are and whatever your situation, I hope that you can smile with me, if only for a moment. 🙂

En casa

What a difference a couple of weeks can make. There I was in my last post writing about some of the lovely walks we’d been doing locally and now, following last Friday’s declaration by prime minister Pedro Sánchez of a national state of alarm in Spain, we are not allowed to walk any further than the garden.

I am not complaining. The response by the Spanish and Asturian governments to the coronavirus situation was swift, decisive and efficient, putting the welfare of people ahead of any political shenanigans; the 15-day ‘lockdown’ is designed to minimise contact between people whilst enabling key workers to do their vital jobs and essential industries to keep supply chains open. The sense of common purpose, solidarity and concern for each other’s welfare is immense.

We are very lucky. We don’t have to worry about going to work or the financial hardships of being laid off or of trying to care for dependants under difficult circumstances. We are not trapped in a city flat with small children. We are not living alone. We live in a very beautiful place and it is no hardship to keep ourselves to ourselves at home; we are allowed to leave (one of us at a time only) if we need essential goods from a supermarket or pharmacy, or to receive medical attention, but there is a good chance we won’t need to go anywhere.

There are far worse places to be stuck.

Something that has become abundantly clear is that leading the kind of life we do normally – very simple, minimal consumption, close to self-sufficiency – in a sharing, caring community, makes us far more resilient than many others in a time of crisis. We don’t have to worry about food as we have a freezer and cupboards that are well-stocked (but not stockpiled!) with a wide range of ingredients, both bought and home-produced. We also have foods from the garden and orchard that are stored in the horreo or have been dried, bottled or made into preserves.

Even now, the traditional time of year for a hungry gap, we still have a plentiful supply of fresh vegetables and fruit from the garden and tunnel.

We buy fresh milk in bulk and freeze it as a matter of course, but always have a couple of cartons of UHT as a standby; if we end up having to drink black coffee, it will hardly be the end of the world. We make all our own bread using a sourdough starter so don’t have to worry about running out of fresh yeast, although we keep a packet of dried stuff to hand in case our starter decides to give up the ghost. In short, where food is concerned, we could survive a lockdown of many weeks and if that means eating a lot of squash and bean soup, then so be it.

Thankfully, we are both generally fit and healthy; we don’t require any regular medication and in fact, we have only used the medical services three times between us in the (nearly) four years we have lived here so the chances are we will not need to add to the considerable burden the health care systems are currently facing. We are used to reaching for natural remedies for minor discomforts and ailments and it’s wonderful what comfort can be found in honey, lemon, ginger, chillies, sage and a host of other herbs and flowers from the garden.

Pot marigolds (calendula) play an important role in our herbal medicine chest; the garden is currently full of their sunny blooms.

Given that it is nothing for us to go for a fortnight or more without getting in the car to travel anywhere, then staying at home bothers us not one jot. We don’t base our lives around clubs, restaurants, cinemas, shopping and the like so we don’t miss them. We are happiest pottering about on our patch and have no problems entertaining ourselves. We don’t live a life glued to television screens or smartphones (we have neither) but we are very grateful for the internet, particularly as we are in daily contact with our offspring, enjoying a lively discussion and comparison of the situation in Spain, Norway and the UK; video chatting to our grandchildren online is always great fun! We have no problems filling our time with other things: cooking, music, reading, writing, studying Spanish, playing games, chatting and laughing together. I am happy to watch the busyness of insects, the flutter of birds, the dashing of lizards. I love to contemplate the silk inside a petal or the subtle shifts of colour in a sunset. I never need asking twice to crack open a new ball of sock wool!

The only drawback of curtailed liberty for us is the fact that we can’t get out to walk or run; in a normal week, I usually run about 20 miles (32 km) and Roger notches up an almighty 100 miles (160 km) or more. Now we are not allowed to run on public roads and all the forthcoming races we had entered have quite rightly been cancelled. Yes, it is something we miss but again, we’re not complaining: how could we when other people are suffering in so many ways? It’s simply a case of adapting and finding alternatives and at least we can get outside, unlike so many others; there is much activity to be had through gardening, a mat and weights in the house and barn make a perfectly good home gym, and 140 lengths of the barn is one kilometre of running! We love the joyful camaraderie of the running community here so it’s no surprise that there is much sharing of ideas about how to keep fit en casa. Far from mourning running (ha ha, now who’d believe that?), I’m experimenting with other things such as some new cardio yoga routines and learning to zumba. The loveliest video clip I have seen this week is of a whole community in highrise apartments doing exercises together to music on their balconies. What a wonderfully uplifting sight.

Running shoes are confined to barracks!

Being able and willing to adapt to change is most definitely another consequence of living life as we do; if we have to manage without something, we simply find an alternative or change our habits without any fuss. It astounds me that faced with the rumour of shortages, the western world rushes out and fills shopping trolleys with, of all things, toilet paper! Holy crap, what is that all about? Yes, it’s something we use but if we run out, then we will switch to water and washable rags. It’s probably what we should be doing anyway and I suspect if it happened, we’d never swap back.

The switch from tissues to cotton hankies wasn’t a difficult one to make.

Reflecting on all these things I’ve noticed that the more we simplify things, the more we can do without and this seems to happen in an exponential way. Take, for instance, toiletries. It’s fair to say we started from a reasonably sane place as neither of us has ever been what you might call high maintenance; in fact, the list of grooming products and processes I’ve never tried (hair dye, leg wax, cleanse-tone-moisturise procedures, anti-wrinkle potions, spray tans, eyebrow threading, manicure, pedicure, massage, spa treatments . . . and zillions of other things, most of which I don’t even recognise!) far outweighs those I have. I haven’t worn perfume for twenty years and the last make up I applied was a slick of mascara for Sam and Adrienne’s wedding in July 2018. I might look like a greying, wrinkling 53 year-old but actually, that’s exactly what I am and I’m proud of it; I have no desire to try and look younger, but part of me suspects the bountiful fresh air, exercise, healthy diet and laughter that fill my days brings more to my life than any chemical-laden product ever could.

I’ll take this over a trip to the hairdresser any day!

So, with this in mind, last year I set out to pare back the bought products we have and replace them with homemade ones: cue a fascinating foray into the world of soap-making. I love the fact that making my own toiletries gives me complete control over what goes into them; they might seem a bit rustic but at least they are as ‘natural’ as possible. Having played around with several soap recipes, I’ve come to the conclusion that I now only need to make one kind from a mix of coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, castor oil and shea butter; the beauty of this recipe is that it doubles as a solid shampoo so it’s all we need in the bathroom, and a couple of batches keep us going for a whole year.

Even better, now that I’ve found an affordable and reliable source of rye flour (well, two in fact), I’ve started to use that as shampoo so the soaps will go much further in the long run. I’m still making a herbal infusion by simmering a handful of herbs in water – sage and rosemary are my favourites, with a few cloves thrown in for a deeper, spicy note – but not adding apple cider vinegar any more as this is now a base for the shampoo, not a conditioning rinse. The infusion keeps in the fridge for a couple of weeks and actually doubles as a mouthwash that is great for the gums. I simply mix a dessertspoon of rye flour with some infusion to make a paste, then add more of the liquid to end up with a pretty runny consistency which is easier to work into my mop of very thick hair. It’s a simple routine in the shower: I wet my hair, work in the flour shampoo and leave while I wash myself, then rinse thoroughly. Job done. I can’t praise this mix enough, my hair is very soft, silky and shiny and easily lasts four or five days between washes. Kitchen cupboard shampoo. Brilliant.

I’m not the only one who loves rosemary! It’s one of our top bumble bee flowers at the moment.

On the same theme, I’ve just made another batch of solid hand lotion. This is far easier than soap as there’s no lye involved: I simply melt beeswax, shea butter, coconut oil and cocoa butter together in a bowl over simmering water on the woodstove and pour into moulds (I use an old silicon muffin mould). I store the spares in a tea tin I had as a gift and keep the current bar in an old Lush tin which is very portable. The lotion is really lovely, very silky and smooth and can be used on hands, feet, face, all over, in fact. Oh, and it makes a great lip balm, too. Now there’s a simplicity I love.

One of the changes we’ve made recently is to stop buying commercially-produced compost and to rely wholly on our home-produced compost instead. I’m very thrilled that we’ve successfully achieved a closed loop with this, recycling every scrap of biodegradable waste and putting it all back into the soil and food production. There is no doubting the benefit that using it as a mulch has brought, the soil is literally heaving with worms and life. In stark contrast to last year, our vegetable seedlings in trays and pots are growing strongly and healthily.

Meals in waiting: vegetable seedlings in the tunnel.

The downside, of course, is that it’s not sterile so all sorts of other things pop up too and we have to spend some time nipping the rogue seedlings out. It’s also quite chunky so this week Roger turned some scrap plastic mesh (part of one of our wonderful original fences here) and odds and ends of timber into a sieve. It’s not fine enough to separate out all the seeds but certainly keeps two of the biggest nuisances – squash seeds and peach stones – out of the mix. I’ve had a very happy time in the tunnel, sifting a mountain of compost into lovely, fine stuff, picking out any stones and returning the bigger organic lumps to the compost heap. As for the self-set squash that had already emerged, they’ve been potted up for the garden, and any that appear in the compost heap will be left to grow and trail as they love to do; the vast majority of our squash was grown like this last year, mixed up mongrels from open-pollinated varieties and they have been fabulous. We might never bother buying squash seed again.

Organising our lives to be as self-sufficient, sustainable, eco-friendly and plastic-free as possible takes time and can’t all be done at once for many reasons which can lead to a sense of frustration. At times it feels like we’ve stopped moving forward and then something comes along that gives me heart once again. One of the things I’ve found hard to get round here is the reliance in shops on single-use plastic bags for loose produce and the fact that there is no tare on the scales which would allow me to take my own bags or containers. Great news, then, to find that re-usable, washable mesh bags have suddenly become the fashion for fruit and vegetables but as they are very fine, I can use them for buying things like loose grains and spices, too. This is progress.

I was also delighted to find several outlets for the herbal teas produced by Pharmadus Botanicals, a family company from León. Much of what they sell- dried rosemary, mint, eucalyptus and the like – I can produce at home but I don’t grow green tea (yet!) and I’ve never been able to find a loose leaf variety here until now. The Spanish drink a lot of tea and tisanes, so there is a fantastic variety of types, flavours and mixes to choose from . . . but they tend to come in teabags on strings with a cardboard tab, individually wrapped in paper packets and stacked in a cardboard box which is then sealed in clear plastic. It’s a packaging nightmare and somewhere in the depths of it all is a meagre 30 grams of tea! So, this large leaf green tea is a great find: 50 grams of tea in a paper bag that is plastic-free and totally biodegrable (oh, and the same price as the highly-packaged stuff, too). I wish I could return them for a refill, but in the meantime those little bags are just perfect for storing my own dried herbal mixes. Cuppa, anyone?

Returning to the coronavirus and the latest predictions in Asturias are that the peak will occur during the first week of April; it’s likely, then, that the lockdown could be extended. That’s fine. Whatever it takes. In the meantime, I feel nothing but an overwhelming sense of gratitude, respect and admiration for those who are working in extreme circumstances for the welfare of us all and a deep sense of concern and empathy for everyone who is stricken and suffering, in whatever way. Finally, I have a profound sense of hope: hope that, once this is over, humanity can take a long, hard look at the chaos and rush of modern lifestyles and the fragile state of our beautiful planet and maybe – just maybe – reset some of the values that underpin all that we do. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to shift from me to we, from just in time to having more time, from stuff to smiles, from stress to simplicity, from shopping to sharing, from having to happiness? I believe so, and as a man once famously wrote, you might think I’m a dreamer . . . but I’m not the only one. 🙂

A-roamin’ with the Romans

For the third year in a row, we are promising ourselves a trip south to the Sierra Nevada to spend a few days doing some serious walking in the mountains in late spring when the alpine flowers are at their best. Maybe this year we will finally get there, but in the meantime we have been enjoying roaming about much nearer to home; in fact, none of the walks we have done over the last couple of weeks has been further than 20 kilometres from home. Much as we both love the challenge of a long, all-day hike with that wonderful freedom of being out and about and self-sufficient on two feet, there’s a lot to be said for shorter walks, too, especially ones that have allowed us to explore local places at our leisure.

Our first wander took us to the top of Pico Paradiella, a mountain that is literally a stone’s throw away; Roger has run up it from home but to my shame, after being here for almost four years, I had never walked up it. Isn’t that often the way? It was what Winnie the Pooh would almost certainly have described as a Very Blustery Day – the wind on the way up was the kind you can lean on – but it was well worth the buffeting for the spectacular views we enjoyed once at the top. The close proximity of the coast still surprises me at times, we spend so much time in the green fastness of our valley that I tend to forget the sea is just over the mountain, and there it was, all turquoise and white and sparkling in the sunshine. The coastal strip is far more populated than our inland area but seen from above there is something joyfully Asturian about the spread of those brightly coloured houses under their terracotta roofs.

Another day, another peak. This time, Pico La Espina, a mountain which is hugely familiar as it dominates our view down the valley from home; unless the cloud is down, we see it every time we go in and out of the house . . . but yet again, it was a mountain I’d never climbed. Time to put that to rights! At 793 metres above sea level, it offers a stunning 360 degrees panoramic view; to the north, the sea lay brooding under a thick bank of cloud, long white fingers of which were creeping steadily towards the coastline; to the south and east, much higher soaring peaks made dramatic, snow-clad statements against the bluest of skies. Geography was one of my very favourite subjects at school and I love an opportunity like this to study the landforms, the sweeps and dips and plains, the curve of rivers and sprawl of forests, the patterns of geology and settlement, climate and altitude that make and shape this unique landscape. Looking from above brings a different and sometimes startling perspective and it was fascinating for once to be looking from this mountain top to home – albeit still shrouded in morning shade apart from the tiniest corner of our meadow.

It never fails to amaze me how we can wind up and up, sometimes passing through the wildest of country to the highest of places, and still find farms, settlements and lush green fields of grazing cattle. Like the closeness of the sea, it is taking me a long time to accept that here height doesn’t necessarily mean bald mountain tops, bleak rocky outcrops or barren, windswept moorlands of tough grasses and even tougher sheep. There is a peace and gentleness to this place and, turning my face to the sun and listening to the exuberant melody of a spiralling lark, I was happy to wrap it around myself .

Of course, it’s not all beauty and wonder; forestry is a big industry here and an elevated position highlights the ugly scars and emptiness left in the wake of clear felling activity. Eucalyptus has been a boon tree for many countries tackling deforestation as it grows so quickly, but in Spain and Portugal it has been too successful, becoming an invasive species that seriously degrades the soil in which it grows. It seems pretty ubiquitous and yet from our lofty perch, as on other recent walks, we could see areas that have been given over to replanting with native species; in fact, there is a wealth of EU-funded programmes and projects devoted to the regeneration of native mixed woodland where the likes of oak, willow, birch, cherry and holly flourish above an understorey of gorse and Spanish heath. Over the next few decades, the Asturian landscape is set to change once again, I feel.

From Pico La Espina we wound our way down to Navelgas to pick up and follow a short stretch of the Ruta de Oro (Gold Route). This is an area where, like so many far-flung places, the Romans left an indelible mark on the landscape and society as they sought gold to fund their ever-expanding empire. The Astures, who had previously lived in small, self-sufficient communities behind the defensive walls of their fortified castros now had to pay tributes for the privilege of being occupied and provide labour for the gold mines as well as food, tools and other necessities. The gold, which they had traditionally collected by panning the river, became a focus of large-scale industry as the Romans introduced technology, including systems of vast canals, which allowed them to shift some two million cubic metres of soil and rock in order to mine two seams of gold. (This would seem like an almost unbelievable statistic if it weren’t for the fact that on our visit to the gold mines at Las Médulas near Ponferrada we saw how the Romans had washed an entire mountain away; nothing, it seems, got between them and the shiny ore they craved). This walk, though, was more about green than gold, winding its way as it does through a beautiful area of broadleaf woodland where birdsong resounded and echoed as if in some cavernous cathedral.

The soft haze of budburst, the carpets of shaggy mosses, the texture and form of gnarled and twisted trunks and the bright explosion of ferns made it feel quite magical. I know at least one small person who would have declared it the undisputed haunt of unicorns and goblins and in truth, the air of enchantment was palpable. I have never seen such an array or profusion of woodland ferns, from the glossy, graceful hart’s tongue to frondier types that grew taller than us; everywhere was green on green, like an incredible lush temperate jungle.

It’s no coincidence that a proliferation of chestnut trees is a feature of the local gold-mining areas; although it is believed the sweet chestnut was already a native here before the legions marched in, the Romans valued them highly and many ancient chestnut woodlands and orchards date back to that time. The trees yielded good timber for building and industry and the nuts provided a nutritious alternative food source to cereals. Chestnuts are without doubt a significant part of the Asturian landscape, culture and cuisine (there are 58,000 hectares of chestnut forest and orchard here) and it was interesting to find the remains of several traditional cuerrias in the woods. These were circular stores with stone walls up to one and a half metres – tall enough to thwart the best efforts of even the most gymnastically-minded wild boar – where chestnuts were stored whole and covered with woodland ferns; once matured, they could then be easily separated from their spiny covers.

There are beech trees, here, too, one of my favourites with their smooth grey trunks and long cigar-shaped buds bursting into the freshest and brightest of greens. They are a native species; indeed, we chose Spanish beech for the worktops and floor when we renovated our kitchen. What is unusual, however, is the way they have evolved to thrive here at altitudes above 300 metres. This is a relatively short walk but the further we went, the more there was to discover and ponder, including the arched entrance to a mine, now flooded with water, and various formations of land and rock that hinted at much ancient human activity. Now, though, nature has reclaimed the space in a way that has brought tranquility and a tremendous thriving biodiversity. Having recently read Isabella Tree’s Wilding, I found the wise words of Ted Green the tree expert reflected in the plethora of dead wood and stumps that have been left in situ, so essential for wildlife, the ecosystem and the planet.

We returned home via the Valle de Paredes, one of my favourite haunts on account of the incomparable beauty of the Esva river and its gorge. San Pedro de Paredes is a charming and friendly village, which according to tales from the Middle Ages was once part of the Camino de Santiago. The valley boasts evidence of much older civilisations, too, in the form of a dolmen and menhir, but it is perhaps the romanesque architecture and, in particular, the sweeping double-arched bridge in San Pedro that really capture the imagination; those Romans were a busy bunch for sure!

Our coastal walk from the village of Oviñana to the Cabo Vidio lighthouse and the Playa de Vallina provided a complete contrast to the mountains and woodlands we had visited, almost like a little tapas meal of Asturian delights. We are running in a 10k race here later in the month and I was interested to get a feel for the route and to explore a new stretch of coastline. The scenery, as ever, was stunning.

We wandered along the clifftop path where in places the drop below us was almost vertical. Here there is a treasure trove of fascinating wildlife, but perhaps some of the most interesting species are those we were unable to see. Out to sea, there is a system of submarine canyons dropping to 1200 metres and scientists have made some astonishing discoveries in these secret depths, including cold water coral reefs and turtles that have made the epic journey from South America. Most intriguing of all is the giant squid. Unlike its smaller cousins, it is not fished for as it is inedible due to the large amount of ammonia in its body – probably no bad thing since it grows to 14 metres long and weighs in at an incredible 250 kilos. What a creature!

Walking a kilometre or so down a winding, woodland path we emerged onto the Playa de Vallina and, as on so many of our other beach trips, we had the vast sweep of it to ourselves. Like the Ruta de Oro, here too there was evidence of human activity and industry from earlier times with a couple of old mills bearing testament to the power of the stream that disappears underground on reaching the beach.

The beach itself is quite unusual in being mostly composed of small stones rather than the sand we tend to find elsewhere but the rock formations with their tilted, tortured angles and deep splashes of mineral colour were very familiar.

What a wonderfully wild spot, with the surge and suck of the waves making the pebbles jump like peas on a drum and the plaintive cries of seabirds wheeling overhead. Not for the first time – and I am certain not for the last, either – I found myself experiencing a profound sense of gratitude for being able to enjoy this most beautiful of places. ¡Gracias, Asturias!

One of the things I love most about days out like this is the picnic and I’d like to sing out in support of this humble little meal. Picnics surely must be one of the simplest pleasures in life, a joyful celebration of food, nature and the great outdoors all rolled into one. I think it’s a shame to consign them to good weather only; like a barbecue, get your clothes and the food right and a picnic in the snow can be an amazing, life-affirming experience.

Redes Natural Park, the perfect spot for a picnic in the snow. A flask of piping hot squash and chilli soup really hit the spot. (I always carry a bin bag in my rucksack so there’s never a need for a wet backside wherever we stop to eat!)
Picnic places should always be interesting and a bit of shade is a bonus in the heat of summer.

There’s a lot to be said for a picnic breakfast, too! I also believe it’s well worth making a bit of effort over the food rather than defaulting to the ubiquitous sandwich, crisps and chocolate bar, for several reasons. First, there are far healthier, tastier and more interesting options. Second, knowing that your cool box, hamper, rucksack or whatever is full of delicious things to eat brings a wonderful sense of anticipation – especially important if you are hiking any distance first to earn it. Third, there is such a wealth of portable culinary possibilities to be explored and preparing tasty, wholesome food with love and attention, even in tiny quantities, is a lot of fun. Making full use of the freezer or drying and preserving our fresh produce means that even the most spontaneous of picnic decisions can be furnished with some yummy pre-prepared treats.

Dried slices of kiwi and shelled walnuts make perfect picnic treats from the garden.

Sam and Adrienne introduced us to the delights of spinach and goat’s cheese pasties on our rambles with them across the South Downs; they are fabulous finger food and we have enjoyed putting our own spin on that idea, using an Asturian sheep’s cheese and baby chard from the garden. Roger – who I swear has gone totally native – has taken to making bollos preñaos asturianos, hearty bread rolls with a lump of chorizo baked into the middle. I’m not a vegetarian but I do prefer my bread to be free of resident pig bits so for me, homemade hummus is the perfect picnic food. Hummus is the easiest thing on earth to make: for a basic recipe, simply take the vegetable of your choice and blitz it in a blender with a good dollop of tahini, garlic cloves, a glug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Traditionally, of course, it’s based on chickpeas but really, let your imagination go wild with this one! We use white beans a lot because, unlike chickpeas, we grow them in the garden; I love carrot or beetroot, cooked or raw, whizzed up with coriander, cumin, walnuts and orange zest and juice, rather than lemon; peas and broad beans with mint, basil or dill make a sublime summer version. Mixes of leftover roast vegetables are fantastic. Honestly, if you can blitz it, you can hummus it! At this time of year, squash is on our to-use list every day; we still have a pile of them stored in the horreo and we know they won’t keep beyond May.

Just some of the squash we grew last year . . .

With the stove lit every evening, it’s no bother to throw together a tray of chopped squash (skin-on unless it’s a toughie), garlic cloves, chopped chillies (wowzer, my frozen Scotch bonnets from last year are really something else!) and whatever spices or herbs come to hand, then drizzle the lot in olive oil and roast until soft. This makes the perfect base for a soup – great in a thermos flask for picnics on cold days – but scraped into a blender and whizzed up into hummus, it is the stuff of dreams.

Homemade crispbreads, squash hummus and a lentil salad – perfect for lunch at home and equally good on the move.

All that’s missing now is a salad and what goes into that will depend very much on the season. If we are short of plentiful candidates from the garden, then something based on lentils or bulgar wheat makes a good, hearty base; otherwise, it’s a case of wandering about last-minute and picking a pot of fresh, tasty, colourful gorgeousness to complement the starchier elements. Salads hold up amazingly well on picnics; they even survive long walks in hot weather as long as they’re packed properly. Believe me, here is no excuse for soggy slices of cucumber and tomato. Ever. ¡Buen provecho! 🙂

This week’s salad from the garden: red mustard, red and green mizuna, shungiku, rocket (two types), landcress, komatsuna, pak choi, baby beetroot leaves, broccoli, peas, spring onions, mint, chives, coriander flowers and calendula petals. The only bought additions were olives and capers. Delicious eaten in the fresh sea air at Cabo Vidio!