Running rescue remedy

Isn’t it funny how there are some things in life we love without question, while others don’t hold any attraction whatsoever? I enjoy writing blog posts and long, rambling, windy, wordy emails and messages to friends and family (sorry, folks! 😉) as pure indulgence in my love of language and written communication, but I have to admit – hand on heart – that journalling is not something I’ve ever been drawn to. I know it’s a hugely popular activity and I understand that it brings immense pleasure, comfort and support to many people but I’m not a diarist by nature and not really given to introspective emotional outpourings or any kind of ‘stream of consciousness’ writing. Well, never say never! It’s been a bit of a surprise to find myself happily launching into the new world of keeping a journal this week in the hope of kickstarting a better running habit. Actually, any running habit.

I find it hilariously ironic that, having spent the last two and a half months in Mayenne, with an infinite number of pretty and, most importantly, flat running routes on my doorstep, I’ve chosen to turn my attention to running once more now we are back in the mountains of Asturias. We are here on essential business, the car being due its ITV (the Spanish equivalent of a British MOT or French contrôle technique) which is a legal obligation that needs to be fulfilled before we can officially register it in France. Of course, there is also the house to check on, the garden to tidy and finally – and thankfully – preparations to be made for visits from potential buyers. Although we are impatient to be getting on with our new French garden, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to enjoying some time here again, catching up with our neighbours, harvesting masses of lovely fresh veggies from the garden and basking in the blissfully warm kiss of Spanish sunshine.

With the ITV booked in Avilés, the third largest city in Asturias and a 45-minute drive away, Roger suggested he could take advantage of being there and pop into a sports shop to buy some new running shoes. Now this was a moment of huge (self-inflicted) embarrassment for me; we both bought new trainers before we moved to France in December and in the intervening weeks, Roger has worn his out after 800 miles of running and I have worn mine . . . once! 😲 Needless to say, I’m full of excuses: the physical and mental exhaustion of the move, the long days spent putting up new ceilings and digging the garden, the shock of cold weather, blah, blah, blah . . . but even by my own classic ‘I’m running / I’m not running’ pattern of behaviour, this is Bad Stuff. I needed inspiration – and quickly.

As luck would have it, I’d not bothered to bring any books to read while we’re here, knowing I could happily dip in and out of things we’d left on the shelf, but I did pack the Kindle ‘just in case.’ Imagine how chuffed I was to find a free e-book called The Happy Running Habit by Holly Robertson which proved to be just the catalyst I needed. As the title suggests, it’s a book about feeling joyful and finding the sunshine in running and applies equally to all runners, not just beginners (or returners like me). That’s not to say every run becomes some kind of sugar-coated fairy tale, the emphasis is on looking for the joy, even if it’s not actually present. It’s an approach that suits me down to the ground; although Holly acknowledges the role of data, targets and goals, I love the advice to ditch the watch, forget times, distances and pace and just get out there and run with enjoyment and cheerfulness. The trip to the sports shop had reminded me just how fashion-driven sportswear is so her advice to wear whatever you want, even choose crazy clothing that makes you smile and not give a toss what anyone might think, is incredibly refreshing.

It’s a great reminder, too, that when I go for a run, the only person who is going to judge me is me. It’s a sad but honest fact of our society that there exists a strong sense of self that is hard to shake off – anyone who has grappled with Buddhist teaching about the ego or the work of astonishing minds like Ekhart Tolle will know what I mean! The point is, we both flatter ourselves and cause undue worry by thinking that other people are watching and judging us. Let’s be honest, is anyone really going to notice me when I’m running, yet alone waste their life on forming an opinion? Does it matter if they do? I don’t look like a natural runner and I certainly don’t cut any catwalk mustard with my eclectic, mismatched kit and wild mop of hair that insists on breaking free from even the tightest of bands . . . but who cares? I’m running again and with a smile on my face, and if that’s because I’m laughing (kindly) at myself, so be it.

So, back to the journalling which is one of a wide range of strategies Holly recommends in her book to help build the happy running habit; she even provides a beautiful example to download and print, which is a lovely idea. Now, I love good old-fashioned pen and paper but printing off all those pages doesn’t sit easily with my green credentials; I could use an old exercise book instead but I think the most inspiring journals are those that are filled with colourful artwork as well as words and let’s just say, art is not my thing. Cue a eureka moment: why not use a draft blog post to write my journal? It’s a familiar and comfortable format, I can choose relevant, inspirational or uplifting photos from my media library (needless to say, there will be oodles of nature in there) and press the ‘preview’ button any time I want to get the full effect. Perfect! What has struck me already is how much I look forward to updating the journal after each run so perhaps there is something in the psychology that is really working for me. It’s like an excuse to write a mini blog without having to think about it too much; I suspect that the very worst days will be summed up in a single word! 🤬 I don’t intend it to ever be a fully published blog post, but I might use excerpts occasionally and thought I’d share the beginnings of my new writing (and running) adventure in the hope it might inspire other reluctant runners to have a go. Bear with any odd place names or running routes I’ve used, they have more to do with my warped sense of humour than anything else!

Running Journal

The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.

John Bingham
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The first day of a new habit! I’ve become too lazy, unmotivated and neglectful of my health of late so it’s time to start putting that to rights. Self-disclipline is an aspect of running I’ve always struggled with; I don’t want to follow a training plan, at least not at first, but I’m hoping by keeping this journal, I can create a level of accountability to myself – as well as being able to look back over my progress. I’ve been inspired by Holly Robertson of the Happy Running Habit, having read her free e-book. I have three initial goals:

  • Re-establish a regular running habit, aiming for at least three runs per week
  • Build back to being able to run 10k / for an hour – I won’t say ‘comfortably’ because it never is!
  • Be a happy runner! Run with cheerfulness and gratitude even when it hurts.
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Monday 15th March 2021: back in Asturias and my first run for many weeks. Not feeling too enthusiastic but determined to make the change. I walked up the track from the house, ran down Christa’s hill then to the village, up Waggy’s hill and to Banana Hound’s corner, then back to the village, down to the bridge and walked up the hill home. Didn’t intend to go so far but the sun was shining and I didn’t feel as unfit as I had expected – very slow plod, though, stopping a couple of times to enjoy the view. Beautiful morning full of blossom and birdsong, loved the sound of the river and cowbells again. Ended up being 7.3k, pretty chuffed to have made the commitment and not a bad start. Will probably ache like crazy tomorrow!

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Wednesday 17th March 2021: no quibbling about going for a run this morning although as predicted, I felt pretty stiff and achy after Monday. Heavy, heavy legs. Went straight down to the village and planned to do the 5k run I did for the #wwwp5k in December but at the turning point, I decided to push on a bit further – wasn’t feeling too sore, the sunshine was lovely and Muñás is the first place we’ve always seen a swallow and it must be about time for them to arrive. Didn’t see any today 😞 but I’d forgotten just how many blackcaps there are here, their bubbling songs were raucous. Primroses, violets, red deadnettle, stitchwort and wild strawberry flowers everywhere. Exchanged greetings with an old lady walking her dog, we were in agreement that all three of us were enjoying the beautiful morning. Lots of people planting potatoes, wonderful feeling after the three-year ban. In the end, I ran the whole DJ Loop which is 7.5k, not bad for my second outing and I managed plenty of smiles, too. 😊

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Friday 19th March 2021: so tired this morning after a crazily busy day yesterday and another to come today, plus it’s raining and I don’t have a running coat with me so it didn’t take me long to talk myself out of a run . . . BUT then I remembered the happiness habit I’m trying to build so decided to have a word with myself. This time last year we were in lockdown and the only place I could run was in the barn, backwards and forwards like a demented goldfish. Perhaps today’s gratitude needed to be the simple fact that I am allowed out to run, a celebration of the sweet freedom that is so precious – even if it did mean getting wet? Didn’t fancy the road so opted for my Old Faithful route, through the wood, down Christa’s hill, along the gravel track and back. Barely 5k but I’d forgotten what a challenge the constant uphill from 3.5k to 4.5k is. Cold and drippy under the trees and in the cloud, track all mud and puddles so ended up with very wet feet. Least enjoyable run of the week but probably the greatest achievement, facing down my inner Gollum and getting out there. Things to savour? Cherry blossom, pussy willow, eucalyptus flowers humming with bees, fresh new birch leaves, lady’s smocks and a heron lifting from the river on silent wings. Raindrops on borage (aaargh, cue a terrible The Sound of Music earworm🙉 ), that traditional herb of courage and cheerfulness, definitely seems like the right image for today.

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So . . . thank you, Asturias, for being as warm, welcoming and beautiful as ever. Thank you, Holly, too; it’s early days but I’m back to running and I think I’ve managed the happy bit so far. Now it just remains to be seen if I can crack the habit part, too. Mmm, now there’s a mountain to climb! ☺

The mole whisperer

Having spent much of another week on hard, physical work outside, I’ve found myself recalling Einstein’s famous take on insanity. How many times in our lives together have Roger and I left a beautiful and highly productive garden to start all over again from scratch, carving a new one out of a field . . . and why am I surprised that it doesn’t get any easier? Well, Albert knew a thing or two and perhaps we really are mad but I have to admit that, despite the aching muscles, the sore hands and the need to be tucked up asleep by nine o’clock every night, I still get a huge buzz from this kind of thing. It’s hard-going and progress can seem very slow: our ideas and plans twist and change and there’s a certain impatience in wanting to do everything at once, but gradually some sort of framework – a garden skeleton, if you like – is beginning to emerge. It’s fresh and new and exciting, like the spring growth unfurling so rapidly around us.

Without doubt, one of the hardest parts of our move is that we have gone from being almost self sufficient in fresh fruit and vegetables to having nothing to harvest except a few herbs. It feels strange having to buy them all but in a way, it’s an interesting experience which has given me the opportunity to reflect on how central the kitchen garden is to our lives and what an enormous proportion of our shopping the fruit and veg haul now is! It’s pretty expensive here (not that I mind that, I don’t believe food should be cheap) but there is a great range to choose from, the quality is excellent and I’m impressed by how much things have swung towards organic in recent years in France. Still, it’s just not the same as wandering around our own patch, foraging bits and pieces for dinner, so the race is on to get prepared and start planting . . . and if I seem a bit over-excited about the prospect of that first crop of fresh rhubarb (all mine, Roger doesn’t like it) then that’s because I truly am!

Although digging beds is still the predominant activity, there have been several other key jobs to be done this week and I’ve finally got round to tackling a couple of monstrous things that have been bugging me ever since we moved here. First, the compost heap, a bit of a Heath Robinson affair which looked to be a mess in need of sorting out. We have plans for a bigger and more organised system of (hopefully) three bays; anyone who has been reading my blog for a while will know I’m a bit of a compost monster and I do love a good heap so I’m very excited at the prospect of eventually having an all singing, all dancing set-up on the flat. Like everything else that will take time, so for now we will carry on with what was already here, albeit after a bit of a makeover. The left bay was full of oak leaves so I shifted them onto a hügel bed, then set about moving the compost pile across from the other side. Now I don’t mind jobs like this; partly-rotted vegetation really doesn’t bother me, it’s all part of a wonderful natural cycle, but I do have an issue when it’s all wrapped up in plastic, piles and piles of cellophane-type stuff plus various bits of metal and other non-biodegradable rubbish. Cue a lot of Muttleyesque muttering and cursing: this is not what composting is about! As with so many other things, what had seemed a fairly straightforward job took much longer than expected but the good news is I did find some decent compost at the bottom – enough to almost fill a dustbin, in fact – so it was well worth the effort. I’ve covered the heap in thick cardboard to allow nature to work its magic and started a new plastic-free pile on the right.

The second big task to be tackled was the bonfire site at the north end of the Potager area. Given it was a large circle of bare earth, this promised to be an almost ready-made planting bed once the pile of unburnt leaves and bits of wood had been removed but I hadn’t reckoned on the mess I’d find on closer inspection. The area had obviously been used to burn household rubbish and bits of furniture (illegal in France, and totally unnecessary given the highly efficient and accessible local rubbish and recycling facilities) and was full of plastic and metal detritus. Even worse, an old unburnt tarpaulin had been dumped on top and had shattered into thousands of tiny blue plastic strands which were everywhere; to say picking them all out of the soil was painstaking would be an understatement but it had to be done. Still, with the warm sun on my back and the air full of joyful bird noise and the sweet smell of spring, I did at least have lovelier things to focus on.

Back to the digging, and although it feels like we’re making progress in creating planting spaces, when we stop to consider everything we’re intending to grow, it still seems woefully inadequate. The original Shed Bed already has garlic, broad beans and parsnips in it and once we’ve added onions it will be full. The Secret Garden will be the shadiest patch through summer so perfect for lettuce and other salad leaves, beetroot, chard, celery, parsley, radicchio and overwintering brassicas like kale and broccoli which we know will flag in the full heat of summer.

The Bonfire Circle will be just the place for climbing beans with perhaps some cucumbers for company, underplanted with salad crops and (of course) some floral beauties to tempt the pollinators in. The potatoes get their own super-mulched patch and the squash will go on the hügelkultur hump from where they can scramble to their hearts’ content all over the grass; oh my, what a treat it’s going to be this year not having to chase them off down a mountainside! It doesn’t sound too bad until we think about all the crops that still need somewhere to grow and then it’s obvious the remaining bed isn’t going to cut the mustard, despite the fact we are extending it daily. I think the Flower Garden hügel (of which more in a moment) will have to house courgettes this year, the potatoes will have to accept some close neighbours in an extension to their bed and we will need to tackle the space currently covered for the eventual polytunnel sooner than expected if there is going to be anywhere for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. Phew! Maybe it would be easier to carry on buying veggies after all . . .

Given the pressure to organise the Potager, it might seem an indulgence to be busy creating the Flower Garden, too, but knowing from experience how long it can take for things to become established, it’s important to at least make a start. I have to say that ‘flower garden’ is a bit misleading in some ways; the ‘flower’ bit simply implies they will be the predominant feature but there will be no shortage of vegetables and herbs in there, too. Although I’m capitalising the various areas for ease of description we don’t see the patch as separate gardens but something more holistic, so the Flower Garden is somewhere that should sit comfortably behind the house, morphing into a Wild Patch on one side and Orchard on the other. The fly in the ointment is the shed on the north side which is something of an eyesore; we know from old photos that originally it was much smaller – just the part on the right with the guttering – but it has been extended greatly in recent years and yes, that poor oak tree really is now ‘growing’ from inside it! In the long term we’d like to shrink it again and at the very least I’m planning to paint it a gentle green and grow plants up it to soften the impact.

I wrote last time about starting to dig the first bed (where that tarpaulin was) and this week Roger has been cutting stout hazel poles from the hedge to create a rustic trellis-type structure along the back of it; covered in climbers, it should help to screen the shed even more and give a sense of height and a colourful backdrop. I’ve made a bit of progress in digging the bed and plan to use some finer hazel poles to make support structures for sweet peas and the like; the rest will almost certainly be scattered with annual flower seeds for a cheap and cheerful whack of colour and insect heaven in this first season.

I’m very aware that in a perfect world, we would be creating all the planting spaces without digging but there are a couple of problems with that one. For starters, we would need vast amounts of cardboard, manure and compost which we just don’t have; also, the ground here has been mown for the last thirteen years with a heavy tractor like the kind used in town parks and has become horrendously compacted. I understand the whole no-dig thing, and after the initial preparation we will be using a minimal disturbance approach but I think there has to be an acceptance that just occasionally, digging is the right thing to do. In order to maintain a semblance of balance, though, (and not totally shred my permaculture credentials) we decided to start a second bed in the Flower Garden using the hügel principle; after all, there’s not so much of a rush to create immediate planting space there. Rather than the classic arched profile, this is much flatter – less German hügel, more Welsh twmp. I’m not quite sure what we’ve created, maybe an Anglo-French-hügel-lasagne-pancake bed, which sounds either like a delightful cultural co-operation or diabolical confusion, depending on your outlook! We started by breaking up a stack of rotten hazel poles that had been left leaning against a tree and used them to make the base.

Next, we added the chopped remains of a couple of sacrificial ornamental conifers; please don’t mourn for them, they were nasty things and we’ve already more than replaced everything we’ve removed with native species better suited to the ecosystem. A thick blanket of grass clippings and dead leaves went on next, and finally a covering of inverted turf. I’ve read a couple of interesting articles suggesting that if the final layers of compost and topsoil are in short supply, then it’s possible to just keep adding organic matter – like a slow-burn compost heap – and simply plant into deep pockets of compost in the first season. I’d decided this would be the best approach; we could find enough topsoil but as that would mean digging a very big hole, it would sort of defeat the object, and perhaps courgettes planted in plenty of that retrieved compost is a good plan for this summer. However . . . I would, of course, love to have a few flowers in there too, and it occurred to me that I might be able to sow at least part of the bed this summer thanks to our very active population of moles. I must confess, I have a bit of a soft spot for moles with their velvety coats and outrageous paws but I know I’m the only member of the household who feels that way, especially when the evidence of their activity sweeps across the entire garden like chains of volcanic islands. The soil they throw up is amazing stuff, however, and I reckoned that a few minutes spent with spade and barrow scraping off the hills (or ‘oonty tumps’ as they’re charmingly called in Shropshire dialect) might render a bit of topsoil for a corner of the bed. A few minutes? Try well over an hour! In the end, there was enough soil to cover a good quarter of the bed to a depth that will readily allow me to scatter annual seed. Scraping each hill, I whispered my thanks down into the darkness of those secret tunnels and encouraged the little diggories to keep up their good work; well, for the time being at least – I probably won’t be feeling the love quite so much when they’re ploughing up the onions.

To an outsider, what is going on in the garden at the moment might well seem a chaotic puzzle but eventually some sort of shape will emerge and I’m hoping that by summer, it will all look very different – even if it’s currently hard to imagine. Looking at the stark layout of the Potager with its different shaped beds, hügel mound and mown avenues, I’m reminded of one of those computer- simulated models of Avebury Ring or Stonehenge and wonder if we should be incorporating some standing stones somewhere?

From front right: potato patch, general patch, hügel bed, bonfire circle. From front left: soft fruit patch, polytunnel patch (covered).

On a slightly smaller geological scale, and certainly more Hansel and Gretel than Neolithic Man, Roger has used a bag of white mulching pebbles left by the previous occupants to mark paths through what we’re planning as a Woodland Edge. The hedge against the lane is in a poor state but the row of mature trees is lovely and adding native planting to create a mini woodland below them seems just the right thing to do. Like our other projects, it will take time, especially as we’re planning to raise a lot of plants from seed, but in the meantime I’m enjoying following those moonlit pebbles on night rambles around the garden, whilst surrounded by the urgently romantic calls of barn owls and tawnies; ah, spring is definitely in the night air!

So, back to digging and although it’s hard, repetitive work, the one blessing for us is that this is the first of seven gardens spanning 24 years where we haven’t been digging up piles of other people’s rubbish. Yes, the compost heap and bonfire patch were pretty disgusting, but elsewhere the soil is blissfully deep, rich and remarkably free of stones. It is also full of the biggest worms you can imagine; no exaggeration, I’ve seen smaller grass snakes – no wonder the moles are so happy. I’m working as gently as possible so as not to disturb them too much and remembering the last French garden we created just a stone’s throw from here; there, instead of beautiful worms, every forkful turned up rubbish, mostly huge pieces of black plastic silage wrap and baler twine that wrapped itself around our tools and was a complete nightmare to deal with. It seemed to take forever to clear and yet we ended up with a very productive patch buzzing with life and colour, and crammed with food and flowers, in a relatively short time.

Mayenne potager #1: fingers crossed the second will be as good.

I know we will manage the same here, I just need to be patient and keep on digging. When my aching back suggests it’s time for a break, it’s lovely simply to wander about and see how things are changing with the season, the fattening leaf buds and first fresh green burst of willow and hawthorn, the delicate haze of plum blossom, the busyness of bees and butterflies and territorial posturing of birds. I can stand in the garden and watch roe deer grazing in a neighbouring field, red squirrels scuttling about in the oak trees and skylarks singing high above me. It’s all truly wonderful but – simple soul that I am – I find myself drawn time and time again to the Shed Bed where the glossy green spears of garlic push a little higher each day. Here is the wonder of nature, the miracle of springtime, the joy of growing vegetables. Here is our food of the future . . . and that makes me very happy. 😊