Sweet liberty

Having been locked down here so tightly for so long, the freedom which comes with each tentative Spanish step back towards some kind of normality leaves me feeling slightly giddy with delight. How wonderful to be able to walk and cycle from home once again and catch up with all that has happened in our beautiful neighbourhood in recent weeks. Mountain roads, country lanes, forest tracks . . . what a treat to be striding out or pedalling leisurely together, drinking in stunning views in these lush green mountains under wide blue skies.

Having moved into a new phase which granted us permission to travel further afield within Asturias, we decided to celebrate with a walk along the local coastpath from Puerto de Vega to Playa de Frejulfe. This is one of my very favourite jaunts; it’s not far (roughly 3 kilometres / 2 miles) nor is it difficult, but it is wild and atmospheric and very, very beautiful – and realising I hadn’t seen the sea for nearly twelve weeks, I was bubbling with excitement and anticipation. What’s more, the sun was shining and the swallow- daubed air blissfully warm; summer seemingly, if not technically, has arrived with us in all its balmy glory this week.

We started our walk at the Capilla de Nuestra Señora de la Atalaya which stands alone on a pretty promontory and is built on the site of a 13th century hermitage; it is the kind of ancient mariners’ chapel that is so traditional along the weather-beaten Atlantic coasts of northern Spain and western France. The weather vane design and unusual altar situated in a ship’s bowsprit serve to remind the faithful how inextricably linked their history and community are with the sea; Puerto de Vega may be a relatively small harbour but it is still a commercial fishing port nonetheless.

Heading in a westerly direction, the path does what most coastal trails do: winds along craggy clifftops and skirts patchworks of small fields and windswept woodlands, here dipping down into wave-beaten coves, there climbing to the top of rocky bluffs. Early in May, the flowers along this route are completely stunning; in previous years, I have described it as walking in nature’s garden, the sheer abundance of species and colour and form rendering it almost impossible to know where to look first.

This year, however, the clifftop garden has bloomed in rare tranquil solitude with only the wheeling seabirds privy to its spring spectacular. Arriving too late, we had missed the best of it.

Not that I felt downhearted: how could I? Following the confines of lockdown, it felt as if I was walking this path again for the very first time, there was such a freshness to it, a sense of things new and unexplored. Somehow in this landscape I always feel a curious mix of peaceful timelessness juxtaposed with fretful change as the restless sea hurls itself against the land’s edge, sculpting and shaping and shifting the rocky limits. There is nothing willingly yielded, no quarter given; the rock is dark and glowering, standing sharp and stubborn against the tidal onslaught and yet all is mellowed and soothed by that infinite canvas of blue on blue beyond.

We might have missed the best of the flowers but there was still plenty there to catch the eye . . . and the nose, too. Long stretches of the path are flanked with honeysuckle which scrambles in a chaotic profusion along the ground rather than twining upwards. Such heady perfume! I realised what an unexpected mingling of scents honeysuckle and salt air is, slightly shocking but so very tantalising like the fire of chilli in chocolate or the crunch of salt in caramel.

There were other beauties, too, in a beguiling mix of simple and startling, native and incomer.

It’s interesting how the eucalyptus – that ubiquitous weed tree – struggles on these coastal fringes, ragged leaves tortured and scorched by the salt-laden wind. The pines look far more comfortable, scenting the air with their resinous warmth and striking animated poses against the cinematic backdrop.

I have loved Frejulfe beach since the first time I set foot there four years ago. There is an enduring enchantment to that crescent of shining sand, curving in a perfect arc between green woods and wild waves: it is breathtaking in all seasons. Descending the steps from coastpath to beach, I was delighted to find our usual ‘table’ had been reserved for lunch!

Coming from this direction means that in order to walk along the beach, we first have to cross a river that is too deep for shoes, so there is nothing for it but to dump the footwear and start paddling. The sea here is cold (the Mar Cantábrico is no Mediterranean!) and it’s usually September before I’m brave enough to wade in for a dip; in the meantime, I do love a bit of a splash along the shoreline, feeling the pulse of the lace-edged waves beneath my sandy toes.

The far end of the beach always strikes me as a place of mystery and fascination, a spot that just has to be explored. The tide pulls back to reveal a wealth of rock pools unusually accessible for the Asturian coastline (we normally have to scramble a fair bit!), each a mini-world in itself, brimming with an abundant complexity of wondrous life forms.

The brooding cliffs open into caves of penetrating black, the hunkered rocks squeezed and split into tight tunnels and tilted chasms that draw inquisite footprints into hidden places. I never fail to be astonished by such geology, these citadels of tortured texture the result of unimaginable energetic tumult eons ago. Was it destruction or creation, that violent process? I’m never quite sure, but the tactile calligraphy scored into those ancient stones draws my fingers like a magnet every time.

Not to be outdone, the sea reminded me that it, too, is an accomplished artist, etching sinuous meanders and branching dendrites into the wet sand.

The idea of a classic beach holiday – you know, the kind where you lie about with crowds of other people toasting under sweltering skies – fills me with abject horror . . . but give me a short spell in a peaceful seaside spot like this and I am as happy as a happy thing. Peaceful it was, too; late May, fabulous weather and the children not in school – who can believe a beach could be so empty? We are thoroughly spoilt, I think!

Climbing back to the coastpath, we noticed that the cliffs were larded with thick clumps of rock samphire or sea fennel, as it is also known. It is perfectly edible but in culinary terms, it has traditionally been considered a poor cousin to the more fashionable marsh samphire, albeit botanically they are not related. However, trendy chefs are apparently now serving rock samphire instead of marsh samphire because the latter is deemed to be too ‘ordinary’ these days; given its habit of growing in inaccessible places, daring foragers supplying restaurants can command a high price for their labours. Now, I love a bit of wild food foraging and this was very accessible indeed but, tempted though I was by those succulent aromatic little branches packed with vitamin C, I left well alone. This is a plant that has been a protected species in the UK for most of my lifetime and is endangered in certain parts of Spain; it needs all the help it can get and it’s not as if we are short of green stuff on our plates! Once again, I was reminded of the fragility of life, the delicate knife edge on which so many precious and extraordinary species and ecosystems balance, and what a blessing it is that I have the opportunity to witness, experience and reflect upon so much that is wonderful in nature.

Interestingly (or not, depending on your perspective – sorry, but I’m a hopeless word nerd 😉 ), the origin of ‘samphire’ is thought to be a corruption of the French Saint Pierre, sailors of old having cast the plant, which they valued highly in the prevention of scurvy, under the protective cloak of the patron saint of all things maritime. I thought there was a rather pleasing circularity at play here, given how our walk had started at a seafarers’ chapel. So, setting the compass of my somewhat pagan spirit to the east, I stepped out once again, relishing the salty tang of the fresh sea breeze, the benevolent caress of the sun on my face and this new-found liberty that is oh so sweet! 🙂

Notes from a simple gardener

Water to draw, brushwood to cut, greens to pick – all in moments when morning showers let up.

Ryōkan Taigu

I like a simple life. Well, of course I do; it would be very hypocritical of me, if not downright rude, to write a blog about something I didn’t believe in, practise and – most importantly – enjoy. In our modern society, perhaps the idea of spending our days fetching water, chopping wood and picking greens seems over-simplistic, naive or impossible but I think it’s a rather beautiful ideal for all that.

In recent weeks, as mankind has been grappling with the horrors of COVID- 19, I have been encouraged to read about many people who have discovered unexpected benefits from the situations they have found themselves in: couples and families enjoying their time spent together, parents and children finding home-schooling a deeply rewarding activity, people cooking and baking instead of buying ready-meals or takeaways, exploring their local areas whilst exercising outdoors, neighbours and strangers helping one another in a myriad different ways . . . so many people who say that when this is over, they will be making changes to their lifestyles that reflect the experience of doing things differently.

I’ve also read several criticisms of this viewpoint, arguing that it reflects a privileged middle-class mindset but I feel that’s a bit of a sweeping generalisation that does everyone a disservice. Certainly, those talking about change appear to be people of all ages and from all walks of life, a real cross-section of society, in fact. Like so many aspects of life, perhaps it should all be about balance? No, of course not everyone can give up their job or home-educate their offspring and indeed many would prefer not to, anyway – but is there really anything wrong in people looking to change the values of society and the way it operates, to stand up for a society that is based more on human well-being and loving kindness than over-consumption and the constant drive to grow the economy?

One of the phenomena that I have been watching with great interest is the upsurge in gardening and I’m hopeful that it is something that will continue long after this terrible pandemic has gone. Now, obviously I’m biased because it’s something that I love to do (although I’ve always understood that it’s not for everyone) but I think the fact that so many people are now keen to grow their own food is a truly wonderful thing. I am happy to argue that the business of planting, harvesting and eating food – whether from a garden, allotment or window box – is one of the simplest yet fundamentally gratifying activities there is. Plant a seed, watch it grow, pick it and eat it. Perfectly simple and simply perfect.

Sweet peas

I think over the years, gardening has in some ways been a victim of its own success and this has led to a polarised view of what it’s all about. Garden centres brimming over with a tantalising array of seasonal goodies give the impression that all you need to do is buy and plant a plethora of fashionable things and that’s the job done. Meanwhile, celebrity gardeners demonstrating complicated procedures in perfectly manicured plots can lead some to believe that gardening is a work-heavy, complex business which is beyond the reaches of most. Again, I think it’s all about balance. Yes, growing a garden will require a certain amount of time and energy if a decent harvest is going to be enjoyed but it can and should be a pleasure, not a chore. It certainly doesn’t need to be complicated, either; in fact, in many cases it’s as simple as reading the instructions on the back of a seed packet.

Now, I would never profess to being an expert gardener; actually, I wouldn’t want to be one as I think ‘experts’ have a habit of losing their capacity to learn or be open to new ideas which is something I would hate. However, I’ve had a lot of fun over the last few weeks swapping garden notes and ideas with loved ones, celebrating successes and commiserating over problems, giving out little snippets of advice based on experience and trying some new things that have been suggested to me. Here, then, for anyone who is interested is my pocket-sized guide to growing a garden. Simply. With smiles.

Grow what you enjoy eating

It might seem obvious but there is no point in growing foods that no-one in your household actually likes eating. When we moved here, the garden was a jungle of only turnip greens and mustard, both of which the previous owner professed to not liking! It’s easy to feel that certain things are ‘essentials’ in a garden but it’s important to remember that times and attitudes change and people have different tastes . . . and they are allowed to. You don’t need a garden that is stuffed with marrows, runner beans and rhubarb. If you like those things, that’s great – go ahead and grow them; if you don’t, then don’t! No matter how small or ‘low maintenance’ your patch is, it will take time, work and money and there is no sense in squandering such precious resources on producing food that isn’t going to float your boat. Going out into the garden to forage should always be a pleasure, a huge, tongue-tingling smiley delight full of anticipation and joy not a resigned sigh at facing the blackcurrants, beetroot, broad beans (or whatever) once again.

Prioritise

If you only have a small space, don’t grow bulk crops such as onions, potatoes and carrots which tend to be cheap and plentiful in the shops all year round. Small amounts of young ones, yes; a root of melting, fondant, buttery new potatoes, the sweet crunch of a baby carrot or the sharp zing of spring onions are divine. Otherwise, buy them in and grow more interesting things or those fruit and vegetables that are seldom great from the shops: The Sugar Hits (peas, sweetcorn, parsnips), The Wilters (broccoli, salad leaves, spinach), The Flaccid Flops (asparagus, runner beans) and The Downright Flavourless (lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and a whole host of other tasteless friends).

Be realistic . . .

Any garden space has the potential to be a beautiful and productive patch but all are limited to a degree by factors such as climate, aspect, light and soil. It is possible to try and grow plants that are unsuited to the site with a lot of application and hard work but at the end of the day, is it really worth it? Happy plants make for happy gardeners! Look at what’s growing locally and the chances are that whatever is looking healthy and abundant in a neighbouring patch will thrive in your own. Bear in mind also that things will go wrong! That’s all part and parcel of the gardening experience and needs to be accepted and embraced as such, which is why a sense of humour is the most important gardening tool. Take heart from the fact that no-one is immune; we have grown peas every summer for over 30 years and yet the overwintered crop, as well as the current first earlies we are harvesting now, have totally refused to climb up their supports. Pea plants come with curly tendrils to help them cling and climb but this lot seem determined to sprawl across the ground which makes picking the pods somewhat interesting!

Last year’s peas knew how to behave.

Last year, I grew a vibrant patch of sunflowers from seed given to me by our grandchildren; once they’d finished flowering, I collected lots of seed from them, gave little packets of them away to help spread the love then planted a huge patch here a couple of weeks ago in the hope of another splash of summer colour. Ha ha! My precious seeds have been dug up and eaten by some wretched little pest (I suspect a small and furry rodent type) which then rudely left the husks scattered all over the soil. Ah well, that’s just the way it goes sometimes.

Last year, the sunflowers were beautiful; this year they were mouse breakfast.

. . . but don’t be afraid to be bold

There is no rule that says you must be a sheep in your garden: you neither have to be run-of-the-mill traditional nor follow the fashionable flock. Raised beds? Not compulsory. Fancy slate plant labels? Not necessary. This year’s latest must-have designer flower or vegetable? Not needed. Why not try something different or have a go at doing things your way? If you want to grow purple carrots or trombone squash, go ahead and grow them. If you fancy planting cabbages by your front door, do it. Don’t be too precious about things, either. If you’re looking for a cut-and-come-again salad selection but can’t find what you’re after amongst those pricey packets, make your own by mixing seeds for lots of different leaves and herbs together. You’re allowed to! There are no set hard and fast rules about what a garden should look like so why not personalise your patch? It’s your space and as such, an extension and reflection of your home and your personality . . . and no-one has the right to start tut-tutting simply because there’s a gnome lurking among your lettuce. Really. They don’t.

Cram it

One of the reasons I champion permaculture is the way in which it acknowledges – nay, celebrates! – the benefits of gardening in small spaces. It’s possible, and in many ways easier, to realise greater relative yields from smaller gardens than large, sprawling areas. The trick, though, is to fill it to bursting, cram it to the nth degree in every direction and let polyculture be your mantra!

The patch in the photo above is a steep triangle of somewhere between seven and eight square metres in area. Currently growing in it are a globe artichoke, rose, hyssop, thyme and lemon thyme all of which are permanent features. There are also onions, various types of lettuce, cucumbers, oca, flat-leaved parsley, dill, pansies, marigolds, nasturtiums, a sprinkling of buckwheat and a stray poppy (the only inedible!). I weeded between the onions in the early stages as they’re not keen on competition but for several weeks now the only input has been to harvest bits and pieces as and when we need them. Yes, there are weeds but they’re not bothering me or the plants. Why make work?

The cucumbers don’t seem too bothered by the weeds in their neighbourhood.

If this were our only vegetable patch, we wouldn’t have bothered with the onions; instead, I think a couple of heavy producers – perhaps a courgette and some chard – would have gone in along with a teepee or two of climbing beans; when you consider the vertical dimension too, you can grab yourself a couple of metres of sky to grow things in. Once the summer crops have gone, I’ll replace them with rainbow chard, various kales, rocket and landcress for a winter harvest. There will be far too many plants, of course . . . but between you and me, I think they quite enjoy jostling for elbow room.

Colour it

It’s a personal thing but I’ve never been a huge fan of ‘separate’ vegetable patches, those utilitarian spaces with perfect right angles and plants regimented in precise rows, hidden away from view as if the sight of vegetables is a less than desirable thing. With each successive garden that we have created together, the boundaries between the ‘vegetable garden’ and ‘flower garden’ have become increasingly blurred so that they have pretty much disappeared and become one big gorgeous, chaotic (but very productive) space. Please grow herbs and some flowers, too. Everyone needs colour and spice in their life and mixing them through with the veggies enhances the whole garden and feeds the soul as well as the stomach. More than that, I firmly believe that something as simple as snipping a few chives or sprinkling marigold petals over a salad can be a deeply transformative act. I’m currently reading – for the umpteenth time – The Complete Book of Herbs by Lesley Bremness, a book I’ve had for over thirty years and have never tired of.

I’ve been inspired to explore new recipes using the herbs from our garden, including iced lemon balm and lavender tea which I find is the perfect sipping drink on hot days.

I do, however, have to disgree a tiny bit with Lesley when it comes to choosing flowers to incorporate in salads; she argues for a restricted palette of colours that go well together and are easy on the eye – sage and borage, for example. Mmm. The point is, I don’t garden like that so I’m afraid when it comes to floral art amongst the salad leaves, it’s rainbows all the way for me.

Love it

Love your garden. Love your soil. Love your worms. Make space for wildlife, even if it does mean something munching your sunflower seeds. The patch in the photos below is a couple of square metres we gave over to nature last year, a grotty former chicken run which was ugly beyond words. Beneath all that greenery is a concrete floor with several centimetres of rubble pile on top and covered with a pathetically thin layer of soil. Nothing seems too bothered by this inauspicious base layer. Last year, I scattered a box of ‘bee and butterfly’ seed and the space was filled with annual colour; this year the biennials and perennials have surfaced, with a supporting cast of wild incomers such as violets, charlock, knapweed and ‘three birds flying.’ The tiny pond – a former water trough – squirms with the wriggling and rummaging of newts and the fattest tadpoles I’ve ever seen. Birds drink and bathe in the water daily, and lizards sip daintily from the stone-lined edge. Frogs and toads lurk in the damp shade at its fringes. The piles of rotting logs, chopped brushwood and cut grass are home to slow-worms and grass snakes, whilst the growing greenery and flowers are literally teeming with insect life. Can you spot the grasshopper?

Enjoy it – the most important bit of all

Plant a comfy seat, grab a mug or glass of something then sit and watch your garden grow. There is nothing else to say! 🙂

How can you buy the sky?

Asturias is a land of contrasts: soaring, snow-capped peaks and shining ribbons of sandy beaches; chattering mountain streams and wide, lazy estuaries; lush green meadows spangled with flowers and a dramatic coastline, jagged and wave-beaten; the timeless tranquility of tiny, remote villages and the vibrant buzz of modern cities. Then, of course, there is the weather. Perhaps it is something contrary in my nature, or maybe because I’m British and ‘weather’ is in my blood, but I love the fickle spirit that is the Asturian climate. There is something energising about the speed and quality of changes, of how a rain-drenched landscape shrouded in cloud is transformed to a vista of green mountains printed in sharp relief against the clearest and bluest of skies in what seems like a matter of moments. One day, it’s all wellies and waterproofs, the next sandals and suncream. It’s a teasing unpredictability that breeds resilience, pragmatism and acceptance: life goes on, whatever. It’s only weather, after all.

Friday
Saturday
Sunday

At this time of year, we spend most of our time outside; we eat our meals out there and only drift into the house in the evening as the sun sinks in a dramatic blaze behind the mountain opposite. Once the new horreo floor is finished (something we can’t do until we are allowed to visit a builders’ merchants again), we will even be able to stay out in the pouring rain. At the moment, though, a wet evening does mean being indoors and last week, one such occasion saw us watching a free online film called Project Wild Thing. This had been recommended to me (thank you, Farn!) after I wrote a couple of posts back about how important I think it is for children to spend time playing and exploring outdoors.

It was an interesting film which raised several pertinent issues but what struck me most was how the driving force in the author’s efforts to connect children to nature was based on branding. I realised just how pervasive and powerful branding and advertising are in our society . . . but honestly, how did things become so complicated? How can you possibly ‘brand’ nature? and why on earth should it be necessary? (Please bear in mind, this is not in any way a criticism of the film; indeed, I had nothing but respect and admiration for the author’s intentions and efforts in trying to do a very good thing.)

Now I admit that I am definitely the wrong person to be asking or answering these questions as I am undoubtedly biased. First, the natural world is such a fundamental part of my life and being that I would find it impossible to extricate myself from its wonderfully beguiling tangle. I cannot imagine a life not spent outdoors and I am truly blessed in being able to indulge myself every day; my heart has gone out in recent weeks to all those who have been or still are totally confined to indoor spaces.

Second, I am a marketing company’s nightmare; I detest shopping, I feel no need to buy or accumulate ‘stuff’ and adverts bounce off me like hailstones on the roof. If I’m honest, I don’t even notice them; I am, in fact, completely blind to branding. Still, putting my prejudices aside, I really can’t understand why for one moment nature should need to be branded in order to make it appeal to children and the adults in their lives. This is not a consumable, it’s not the latest whizz-bang gizmo or this season’s must-have – it’s nature, for crying out loud. It just is.

The crucial point for me is that we shouldn’t have to polish and airbrush the natural world, blow it up on hoardings, flaunt it on the front of t-shirts or hand it out in shiny leaflets in order to whet people’s appetite. Nature is an incredible, astonishing, precious, fickle, dangerous, mind-blowing thing; it can’t be tamed or boxed or packaged or ordered online. We don’t need to buy it or buy into it. It’s out there – everywhere- if we just take the time to look. Turn your face upwards to the splatter of raindrops or the kiss of sunshine and you’re acknowledging nature’s presence. It’s really that simple. Isn’t it?

The ironic thing is, experience has taught me that children will revel in the simplicity of nature when given the chance to do so. As a primary school teacher, I would cart my class off to look round a zoo or aquarium where they could watch exotic species living in very contrived environments but without exception, they had far more fun and engagement doing bug hunts or wildflower sampling only a few steps from the classroom door. The best school ‘trips’ we ever had were the ones where we stayed at school and spent the day building dens, climbing trees and cooking over a campfire. Children will find a whole world in the eye of a daisy or the swirl of a snail’s shell if we just let them.

As if to prove a point – to myself, at least! – I decided to take my camera for a wellies-and-waterproof wander in the rain, trying to capture some basic images that had nothing whatsoever to do with branding. I wanted nature to sell itself simply by being, to prove that there is infinite wonder in the ordinary that far surpasses staged professional photo shoots of children cuddling tame frogs. The woods in the rain at this time of year draw me like a magnet; there is such a sparkling freshness to the air and I am captivated by the layer upon layer of green, all that burgeoing, verdant growth. True, in rainy weather the light level is relatively low and the backdrop of a china blue sky unavailable, but there is magic in that rain-spattered world. All the photos in this post apart from the first, third and fourth were taken on that walk and at no point was I more than a ten-minute leisurely stroll from home.

It worries me sometimes where I ‘go’ on these little ventures, becoming so absorbed in everything that I see that I lose all track of time or place . . . but that, I believe, is the whole point. I suppose some people would call it mindfulness, that complete focus on a single point, being ‘in the moment’ to the exclusion of all else but really, you can call it whatever you like. The previous day, I had wandered into the wood for a leg stretch (without the camera) and rounding a bend in the path, I saw a roe deer just a stone’s throw ahead of me. Thanks to a kind wind direction, she didn’t sense me despite my bright red waterproof coat and I was able to stand and watch her grooming and grazing for many minutes, before tiptoeing away; I didn’t want to carry on in case she had a fawn lying in the undergrowth nearby which is perfectly possible at this time of year. I am lucky enough to have seen deer in the wild many, many times but the sheer magic and wonder of watching a wild animal like this is never tarnished; standing stock still, hardly daring to breathe and being wholly taken up by this privileged window on a wild world, it’s a moment to treasure. It’s priceless, in fact.

The truly gratifying part is that such precious experiences don’t have to involve large mammals, either; there is so much that is extraordinary to be discovered in the ordinary. There is a wealth of wonder to be had watching the purposeful march of an ant trail, the expert weaving of a spider, the sing-preen-sing choreography of a garden robin. It is possible to be totally captivated by the play of dappled light through a tracery of leaves, the movement of water over shiny pebbles, the scudding of broken clouds across a windswept sky. There are great secrets hidden in miniature forests of moss, the pleated underskirts of mushrooms, the complex labrythine centre of a flower.

When you can capture the wash of waves in a seashell or a rainbow in a puddle, when you can feel the gentle tickle of a feather on your cheek, the soft whisper of snowflakes on your eyelashes, the rough fissures of bark or silky trickle of sand or sticky gloop of mud at your fingertips, you don’t need a logo or a slogan or a brand. Connecting with the natural world is as simple as rolling down a grassy bank, kicking up a pile of autumn leaves or tasting the sweet-sour burst of berry juice on purpled tongues . . . and I’m not just talking about children!

It comes as no surprise to me – in fact, I’m delighted – that doctors are increasingly ‘prescribing’ a dose of nature for a wide range of illnesses as an alternative therapy to drugs. The benefits to many aspects of our physical and mental health of exposure to fresh air and sunlight have been well-researched and documented; add time spent moving or simply sitting, observing, enjoying, being curious – whether in a wild, rural location, a suburban garden or a city park – and we have a wonderful recipe for well-being. It’s very, very simple. It’s totally free. Let’s get out there and enjoy it, young and old alike. No branding needed. No adverts required. 🙂

Dare to be different

One of the many things I like about writing this blog is that it serves as a sort of vague gardening diary which I can use to refer back to what we were doing in previous seasons. I know this means I tend to repeat myself – and I have apologised for that in an earlier post – but it can be both useful and interesting to see how things were going in the garden at different times of the year as well as being a handy reminder that it’s time to be planting such-and-such once again.

What I really wish, however, is that I had been organised enough to make a note of the precise dates on which there have been major gardening events in the village over the last four years in the hope of finding a pattern. When we lived in France, it puzzled me that absolutely nothing happened in the vegetable gardens until the first week of May, then within the space of two or three days the entire patch was dug and everything (potatoes, onions, carrots, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and courgettes) was planted at once. Our neighbours thought we were très excentrique for pottering about the winter garden doing various jobs and being busy with preparations and plantings as early in the year as possible (mind you, they thought we were very strange for eating parsnips, too!).

Our pickle of a French potager raised a few Gallic eyebrows . . .

Perhaps it’s a quintessentially British thing, that urge to shake off the ennui of long, dark days and revel in even the slightest hint of warmth and seedtime? To be planning and planting and sowing as soon as the robins mark the lengthening days with their sweet song and the velvety bumblebees emerge from their winter caves. I don’t know. Here in Asturias, things are a little different to northern France; the winters are blissfully mild, there is a quiet level of garden activity pretty much all of the time and planting is certainly staggered. What fascinates me, though, is the way in which it all appears to be guided by a mysterious and invisible calendar, as if everyone is dancing in step to a familiar but silent tune, to ripples of invisible notes floating imperceptibly through the air.

I know some gardeners here work to the lunar calendar; indeed, we have bought from several seed outlets where the current one is displayed above the shelves of seed packets and boxes for easy reference. Last September, our neighbour Antonio told me that las berzas (winter cabbages and turnip greens) should be planted out on the day of the autumn equinox. I’m not sure of the relevance but it did at least seem to make a lot more sense than the old adage (which is not followed locally) about planting potatoes on Good Friday, seeing that is a date that can shift by a month and the equinox at least will only move by a couple of days. Recent weeks have seen several days with nothing much happening in village gardens followed by a huge burst of activity with everyone out and working like crazy, then disappearing as if by clockwork until the next big gardening day. It’s as if everyone wakes up one morning and thinks,’Ah yes, today is Bean Planting Day’ and that is why I regret not having kept a note because I’d love to know how they know!

Planting a block of celery . . . possibly on the wrong day?

As I have said before, our neighbours are all wonderfully tolerant, friendly people so our very different gardening style doesn’t seem to bother them one bit – or at least if it does, they’re far too polite to say. Yes, our garden is a bit alternative (well, a lot alternative) with it’s chaotic jumble of flowers and food and our piecemeal patchwork of planting but I celebrate the fact that it is a riotous mix of knowledge and ideas we have gleaned from our neighbours and our own eclectic approach. I’m not sure whether it makes us eccentric or exotic but to me, it’s a wonderful fusion of cultures and a living expression of our love for this exquisitely beautiful place.

The flowers in recent weeks have been bursting into bloom in a paintbox of colours, from broad sweeping swathes to surprising pointillist pops, and filling the air with their heady perfumes. I’ve spent precious moments knitting socks in the garden and seeing the gorgeous dye palettes reflected in the world around me.

The roses scrambling up the house wall have been indescribably stunning this year, dripping with blooms so heavy we have had to tie the plants with rope to stop them collapsing into the lane. There are four varieties in this mix; each has its own unique beauty and character but together they create a pot-pourri of astonishing allure.

Although there is much to be said for agreeable colour combinations, the kind garden designers classically choose to be easy on the eye, I have to admit to a sneaking admiration of those wild and startling combinations that nature throws into the mix. Phacelia has self-set all over the garden, flaunting its gauzy mauve prettiness in the kinds of soft Monet-esque pastel alliances that would happily grace an English cottage garden. That’s fine . . . but how I love its radical flirting with the stunning crimson of poppies!

I love the way things appear in the garden as if from nowhere, too. Rising unexpectedly from the froth of phacelia and poppies, scilla ‘Blue Arrow’ is a single spire of delicate stars; my goodness, here is a summer bulb I planted last year – or was it the year before? – and totally forgot about. It’s taken it’s time but it’s been worth the wait. Nasturtiums are two a penny here and with a very mild winter, they have flowered for twelve months with no break in as many shades of yellow and orange imaginable; now, from nowhere, on the terrace of summer brassicas, a flower of the deepest, richest red has emerged. In the ‘enchanted garden’ of the orchard, a mystery plant has proved to be a linaria which grows readily in the verges and wild places here and is more than welcome; its common name is Three Birds Flying which makes me think of origami or tai chi. It’s totally charming. Sweet Williams are a favourite of mine with their spicy clove scent and jewelled colours and they have set themselves all over the place, popping up in bright bursts in the most unexpected of places. How I love this business of gardening without so much as lifting a finger!

It seems that the insect world is enjoying all this unbridled floral chaos as much as me. We are used to the garden buzzing and fluttering with a healthy population of bees and butterflies and their supporting cast of gentle hoverflies, rowdy crickets, scurrying ladybirds and beetles of all shapes and sizes. There have a been a few new and unusual characters centre stage this week, though. Feeling the need to capture another riotous colour combination with the camera, I ended up with more than I bargained for in my picture. Look closely at that poppy . . .

The length of those antennae was outrageous! Meanwhile, it seemed a knapweed flower was the perfect setting to show off a smart metallic green jacket to great effect.

There’s nothing unusual about yellow butterflies, the garden is full of their buttery flutterings, but catching this one feeding on deadnettle was another reminder of how important it is that we leave plenty of ‘weeds’ to thrive amongst the ‘formal’ flowers. It’s a garden shared rather than a garden controlled.

Ah, but enough of this floral frivolity; ’tis time to turn to the business end of things and seek the food amongst the flowers. It’s an interesting time of cross-over where food from the patch is concerned. We finished eating some of the winter staples like parsnips and leeks several weeks ago, leaving the last plants to flower and set seed for planting next year; meanwhile, this year’s new seedlings are going strong. Otherwise, there are still dribs and drabs of overwintered foods left and we try to eke them out as much as possible at the same time as enjoying fresh pickings from the new season’s collection. It does create a bit of a juggling challenge in the garden, sowing and planting new things around the old which is partly why everything is so higgeldy-piggeldy; I know clearing the lot and starting with a wide open space of bare earth as the locals do would be so much easier, but where’s the fun in that? I love the fact that we have to fight our way through swathes of bee-ridden flowers to find the vegetables, for me it’s all part of the charm of our crazy little corner.

There’s plenty of vegetables to be found in there . . . honest!

So, what have we been eating lately? Well, the purple sprouting broccoli which we’ve been picking since January has gone on and on . . . and on. It’s been blooming in a froth of pale yellow for weeks and although we purposely leave the flowers for a bit (bees love them), it has felt like time to remove the plants to the compost heap for a while now, except they keep producing very edible stalks. Added to a picking of summer calabrese – this is an extra early plant which self-set last year – and we have a decent helping each time.

Last autumn, I planted a patch of beetroot with the intention of pulling a few baby beets but leaving most in the ground to pick the leaves for winter salads, a method which worked brilliantly. With the plants gone to seed, it was time to lift them and I was pleasantly surprised by how many tender, perfectly edible roots were left; roasted in olive oil then blitzed with walnuts, spices and Greek-style natural yogurt, they made a delicious dip of sweet, earthy gorgeousness.

One of our favourite default dinners is a meal that is comprised of several small dishes in a tapas / meze / smörgåsbord sort of way. I think this is a delightful way of eating, first because there is something infinitely pleasing and appetising about a spread of colourful, flavoursome dishes that appeals to all the senses at once but also because it is an excellent way of using up tiny quantities of ingredients in a meaningful way. Half a dozen olives bobbing about at the bottom of a briny jar might look like something that desperately needs hiding in the depths of a cooked dish . . . but marinade them for a few hours in a glug of olive oil with a sliced garlic clove and sprig of thyme, then lay them lovingly on a tiny saucer and you have a dish to be completely savoured. That beetroot dip was perfect for just such a meal, along with a hummus made from roasted squash (our penultimate one in storage) combined with tahini, oilve oil, garlic, spices and pomegranate molasses. A couple of globe artichokes and three spears of asparagus might not really present themselves as much of a helping but lightly steamed and sliced along with raw courgette – or perhaps a few peas or baby broad beans – dressed in a mustard vinaigrette and sprinkled with chive flowers, they become a delicate dish that is a celebration of the season.

Our salads have shifted to something new and different with the season, too. Gone are the oriental leaves from the tunnel (aubergine plants now fill that space), the beetroot and chard leaves and the outdoor rocket and land cress which have been left to go to seed. Now we are enjoying the first of the lettuce, pulled young and mixed with an abundance of fresh herbs and flowers, perhaps topped with artichoke, asparagus, peas and broad beans for a little more sophistication. Later in the season, when we have a glut of them, we will use them as a cooked vegetable but for now there is something wonderfully fresh and crisp about those tender raw leaves.

It won’t be too long before we are eating our own cucumbers, either; we’re growing a small Spanish variety this year which seems deliriously happy in the garden and is doubling in size each day. I love the way that a forest of self-set dill has appeared around the plants as if to remind me what a perfect pairing they are, that sort of classic combination like tomatoes and basil that shouts happy summer greetings from the rooftops.

On the subject of tomatoes, it took us four seasons of living here to finally crack the blight problem, much of last year’s success coming down to the wisdom of our gardening neighbours. This year we have kept things very simple with just three varieties planted in the hugel bed under their anti-blight shelter: beefsteak ‘Marmande’, cherry ‘Rosella’ and plum ‘San Marzano.’ Roger is being totally scrupulous in checking them daily, tying them in and pinching out the sideshoots; each plant will only be allowed to set a few trusses. This is very organised by our standards but we’ve learned the hard way with these beauties and it would be lovely to enjoy a truly abundant harvest this year. I have basil plants waiting in the wings, after all.

We are still eating celeriac, carrots, chard and kale although all four are almost finished now and the very last scraps will be used to make vegetable stock if nothing else. We’ve also eaten the last of our pears bottled in spiced cider and red wine; what an amazing success they have been, we will be preserving as many as we possibly can this year.

Where fruit is concerned our favourite forage at the moment is for wild strawberries that grow in such abundance here; it’s very exciting, though, that for the first time since moving here, we will soon have our own cultivated varieties to enjoy, too.

Our top priority in the garden is to produce sufficient fresh foods for our needs whilst having a minimal impact on the environment. Our choice of plants and varieties to grow has been honed over years of experience and while it might seem boring or predictable to opt for, say, ‘Musselburgh’ leeks or ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ peas, the point is we know that such tried and tested varieties will grow successfully. We simply don’t have the space for too many wild cards, especially as leaving patches deliberately uncultivated or planted specifically for wildlife is important to us. However, I think there should always be room in the garden for at least a little bit of experimentation to keep things interesting. Something new for us this year is a patch of ‘Barletta’ onions, the silverskin variety that is so popular here. As a dual purpose onion, it can be harvested young as a spring onion or left to develop fat white globes as the locals do to use as a cooking onion. Our crop is almost ready to start pulling and should see us through until the maincrop varieties grown from sets and seeds are ready for harvesting.

Sticking with the allium family, and last autumn we decided to have another crack at growing garlic; it’s never been happy here, struggling to thrive through the mild, damp winter. We opted for a Spanish purple variety ‘Spring Violeta’ this time and gave it a vernalisation spell in the fridge before planting; it has never looked back and promises a good yield, despite the fact it is currently providing a foil for a jungle of self-set Californian poppies!

One unexpected benefit of the garlic crop is the picking of scapes that have sprouted from the tops; these are perfectly edible and completely delicious, having a sweet, citrussy flavour followed by a garlic hit, perfect chopped into all sorts of dishes both raw or cooked.

I’m also trying some celery here for the first time, the self-blanching ‘Blanco Lleno Dorado Chemin’, some tubers of oca (thank you, Sonja!) which is a completely new one for us, plus some Spanish varieties of lettuce, sweet peppers and French beans in amongst all our usual crowd . . . and yes, a crowd it certainly is. It’s already standing room only in some places and there is still so much growing to be done. It’s a crazy, jumbly tangle. Many would probably call it a mess. Perhaps they have a point, but I love it; there’s food in there, more than enough once you really stop and look, and a wealth of wildlife, too. What more could we ask from our garden, even if it isn’t likely to win any prizes? 🙂

High on a mountain, a Lonely Goat heard . . .

Yes, I am round. Yes, I am slow. Yes, I run as though my legs are tied together at the knees. But I am running. And that is all that matters.

John Bingham

There’s a bewitching, twitchy feeling here this week, something almost crackly and palpable in the air like the electric storms that brewed here after two days of oppressively high heat. It’s like that moment when you’ve been hoping for good news but hardly dare listen just in case it’s the opposite, that instant when you dare to believe – hopefully, nervously – that there really is light at the end of the tunnel. A corner has been turned and in our valley, it feels like the collective release of a breath held for too long.

After seven difficult, anxious and emotional weeks, Spain has taken its first tentative steps along the phased pathway to lifting lockdown. There is no complacency here; the Asturian president, Adrián Barbón, has said it must be done with surgical precision and any hint of increasing infections or a second spike will see a swift return to us being back en casa. It will take a minimum of eight weeks at best but we have already been warned that we might not be able to leave Asturias until September. Vicky and her family will not be coming to stay here later this month and our trip in June to the UK for family celebrations then Norway to visit Sam and Adrienne are most definitely off, while the journey to my brother’s August wedding hangs in the balance. Disappointed and sad? Of course, but so be it; we all have to do our bit to keep ourselves and others safe. I realise this is part of the necessary adjustment we need to make towards accepting a ‘new normal’ whether we like it or not.

Meanwhile, back to this week and the joyful news that for the first time in 50 days, we were allowed out for exercise. There are restrictions in place for settlements with more than 5 000 inhabitants but in rural areas such as ours we can run or cycle any time between 6am and 11pm and can go as far as we like providing we don’t leave Valdés, the municipality in which we live. Conversely – and somewhat bizarrely- if we choose to go for a walk, we can’t wander any further than a kilometre from home. Running it is, then.

It was actually 51 days since I had last run, training in torrential rain for a 10k race that never happened. In the interim, I have at least been able to run in the barn (which is more than most of our running friends here could do) but it has been far from pleasant; the idea of being allowed out on the open road once again had me feeling slightly giddy, even a bit nervous if I’m honest. Still, Asturias does mornings rather well so how could I resisit such temptation?

Now, regular readers will be well aware of my somewhat turbulent relationship with running; I persist with it because I recognise the benefits it brings to my health and wellbeing and I always feel better for doing it . . . but, I’ve never quite been able to love it. Bit of a shock, then, if I am completely honest and admit that during the weeks of running deprivation, I actually missed it. Yes, truly. I did. I tried hard not to, obviously; I did my goldfish thing in the barn, followed a fantastic new yoga course and even started strength training with weights, something quite different and very challenging for me. I’m not sure whether I’m building impressive muscles but something must be happening because I now find I can use the most important of basic man tools without needing the man to go with it!

I’ve learnt that it’s possible to exercise and keep reasonably fit in straitened circumstances and I’m grateful for how much I was able to do, but the bottom line is this: there’s nothing quite so liberating as being out in the fresh air, footloose and fancy-free and drinking in the beautiful scenery around me (albeit it in an attempt to divert my attention away from the struggle of moving my body through space at something very loosely related to the idea of ‘speed’). Social distancing still applies of course, so I passed walking neighbours at broomstick distance . . . but what sheer joy, what huge beaming smiles, what indescribable bubbly happiness at seeing and greeting each other once again! We were like captive birds released from a cage, soaring skywards on ecstatic wings in blissful, unfettered freedom. Those were possibly the sweetest six kilometres of my life.

One of the benefits of having time to think more about running whilst not actually doing any is that I finally took the plunge and did something I’ve been considering for a while: I’ve joined the Lonely Goat Running Club. https://lonelygoat.com/ In truth, there wasn’t really any ‘plunge’ involved as I think it is a brilliant concept which, like Parkrun, is designed to make running accessible and enjoyable for anyone. Everyone, in fact. The idea is simple: it’s a recognised running club with affiliation to England Athletics available but not compulsory, and if like me, you opt not to register for affiliation, the club is totally free to join. There are no club meetings, no training sessions, no coaches, no championships, no league tables, nada. So what, you may well be asking, is the point?

Well, I believe it has filled a huge vacuum by providing a platform for mutual help and support for runners like myself who – for whatever reason – don’t want to join an orthodox club. The running scene in Asturias is fantastic and I enter occasional races to be part of that friendly and inspiring community and to challenge myself with personal goals (um . . . generally to arrive at the finishing line at some point, preferably on my feet) which give me the impetus to train.

However, I have struggled from the very beginning with the fact that the local runners are so amazingly speedy and I am terribly slow. While I am still wrestling with the demon that is my inability to master a sub-hour 10k, the other ladies in my age group breeze it in 50 minutes or under without so much as breaking into a sweat. It can be hard to keep going and keep smiling and yes, I know it’s the taking part and all that jazz that matters, but actually tight cut-off times matter too, especially if it means the threat of having to walk back to the start after being disqualified as a slowbie. So far I’ve just managed to scrape through – and I really, really mean scrape as in by a few seconds – but it’s tough. Roger is massively supportive and patient and I couldn’t do it without him but he’s a brilliant athlete and I’m not, so in the Lonely Goat RC I think I’ve found a huge network of running soul mates who feel my pain completely because they’re feeling it, too.

There is a social media chat forum which currently has over 17 000 (!) members; you don’t have to join it if you don’t want to and the idea is that if you do, then you dip in and out now and then rather than be a slave to everyone’s posts. There are no experts or show-offs or anybody trying to score points, just a group of incredible people getting out to run despite whatever obstacles are thrown in their way. It’s all about friendship and encouragement, shared elation and commiseration, about people finding a little bit of time in their busy lives to be decent human beings towards one another. How amazing and inspiring is that? When I posted a couple of photos from my first run after lockdown, I was overwhelmed to receive more than 700 likes and almost 70 comments from people who simply wanted to share my joy. We might run as Lonely Goats but we are very definitely not alone. Oh, and I was chuffed to find there is a little herd in Spain, too!

Like affiliation and chat group membership, there is no onus to buy a club strip, either, but I liked the idea of doing at least something to support the organisation so I have bought a vest (which I was delighted to find had been made from 100% recycled polyester). I had a big decision to make over badge colour, with blue, green, purple, pink and yellow on offer. What should I go for? Well, in the end I plumped for purple, partly with Jenny Joseph’s wonderful ‘Warning’ poem in mind (not that I think I am an old woman just yet) but mostly because I suspect Annie would never have forgiven me if I’d gone for anything else!

There’s a lot of friendly Goat banter about the different colours but they don’t actually mean a thing: whichever colour you choose, it’s still one big team. I wore my new vest out for that first run; I stood in the lane on our mountainside and heard the rhythmic scratching of crickets and the screeching of swifts in the valley below and the nervous beating of my heart; I took in an enormous breath of rose-scented air, smiled to myself then launched myself like a crazy child down the steep slope. It felt like I was part of something good.

The 10k race I was training for on the 21st March has been moved to the 20th June; of course, there’s every chance it won’t be allowed to go ahead but I’m training for it anyway. If and when it happens, I shall wear my Lonely Goat vest with pride and an immense feeling of gratitude that I am alive and healthy and able to run through the stunning Asturian landscape with a wonderful bunch of equally daft like-minded people . . . and you know what? I won’t be giving that wretched sub-hour goal a single thought. Not one. 🙂