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!

How to dye happy

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.

Frank Lloyd Wright

One of the unexpected consequences of deciding to start blogging when we lived in France six years ago is the pleasure I have developed in taking pictures. I am not a very good photographer but I love wandering about snapping this and that and it’s amazing just how many of my posts start with a set of photos – or maybe even a single one – rather than an event or idea. For me, it’s an ongoing exploration of a new world of creativity, albeit at a very basic level; no doubt there are zillions of settings on the camera I haven’t discovered yet and don’t even get me started on Photoshop and the like. Like so many of the practical activities I enjoy, it’s simply about being in the moment and having fun. My current obsession is capturing skies.

With this in mind, having been granted permission to walk in the stunning Muniellos Nature Reserve once again last week, the camera was the first thing packed in my rucksack. As luck would have it, the battery ran out the day before so we could charge it fully in readiness for what I hoped would be some beautiful shots during our 20 kilometre walk. We can’t have been more than a couple of hundred metres along the path before the first photographic opportunity presented itself and . . . disaster! The camera wouldn’t work. There wasn’t so much as a spark of life. Nothing. Nada. Dead as a dodo. Not even all the jiggling and poking and manly checking of things mechanical by Roger could coax it back into life (it transpired the battery had somehow discharged itself overnight which theoretically it isn’t supposed to do.) Well, darn it. Needless to say, apart from hoping for some lovely photos to compare with our first walk here last June, there was an embryonic blog post taking shape in my hind brain and now it would have to be ditched.

Or would it? On reflection, I decided I would go ahead anyway for two reasons. The first is that I can recycle some old photos into the post; yes, the ones of the walk were taken in June rather than October but at least they give an idea of the scale of the landscape in which we were walking. In a nutshell, Muniellos Nature Reserve is an area of protected ancient deciduous woodland – some of the oldest in Europe – which covers almost 55 square kilometres and the circular walk rises to 1400 metres, making it higher than any peak in the UK. It is believed to be the best preserved oak forest in Spain and is home to a wealth of tree species and wildlife, including wolves and the Cantabrian brown bear. Access is by prior permission only, individuals can only apply to visit once in any twelve months and no more than twenty people are allowed access each day; astonishingly, it is completely free of charge.

For me, this place is about as close as it comes to paradise. Imagine standing on the side of a mountain, completely surrounded by mixed deciduous woodland which sweeps right to the tops of the rocky peaks as far as the eye can see in every direction. Apart from possibly nineteen other people, there is absolutely nothing of mankind here: no roads or buildings, no fields or farms, no pipelines or pylons, no fences or gates, no machines, no man-made noise. These unspoilt forests are as they have been for millennia, wild and beautiful, pure unbridled nature in the raw; it is a rewilder’s greatest dream. I cannot begin to describe what an utter privilege it is to spend time walking, looking and thinking in this most precious of environments.

So, my second reason for writing this post is actually the very fact that the camera didn’t work; yes, it’s frustrating not to have the images but in reality, it meant spending the whole day totally focused and absorbed with what was going on around us. We would only have memories to take away and making them meant indulging in a masterclass in ‘mindfulness,’ being completely aware and present in each moment without the distraction of technology. To be honest, it was bliss.

The walk is a tough one and definitely not for wimps. First timers have a long and detailed briefing from the warden before setting off and fairly strict times have to be adhered to as the gates are locked at night. It’s no exaggeration to say there are a couple of sections that find me literally crawling on all fours across a rock face on the way up (and very much not looking down) and the first hour of descent is no stroll in the park either as it follows a steep,rocky and perilously slippery stream bed. It’s necessary to keep eyes on the path much of the time so regular stops are needed to drink in those stunning vistas; otherwise, it’s a great opportunity to focus on the small things. How beautiful the perfect symmetry of a fallen oak leaf, half yellow, half green and studded with pearly rain drops; what a treat for the fingertips the knotted fissures of oak bark, the smooth striations of papery birch, the lacy haze of lichen; what colour and texture and form in starbursts of fungi at every turn.

Although we chatted to each other now and then, much of our six hour hike was spent in companionable silence. This is partly because on walks like this, Roger leaps and hops confidently from boulder to boulder like the proverbial mountain goat while I flail along several metres behind like a nervous mountain giraffe (I’ll leave that image with you for a moment 🙂 ) but also because somehow talking here just seemed, well, rude – like making dirty footprints in a pristine carpet of snow or pulling the petals off a rare flower. Human voices felt like an unnecessary intrusion in nature’s symphony and being quiet and simply listening, I tuned in to far more nuances of sound: the rush and chatter of the river, bursts of birdsong, the gentle whisper of the breeze and the way it played different melodies through birch, oak and holly, the hollow clomp of my boots across rocky scree slopes and the softer thud on packed earth, the sounds of my breath and heart constant reminders of being alive in this wonderful, invigorating place. What a completely magical moment to stand in silent stillness together and watch a pair of ibex on the rocky slope above us, such elegant, statuesque creatures.

Although we were a little early for the full glory of the autumn colours (no surprise that the rest of October was fully booked!), there was a plentiful feast for the eyes and it wasn’t long before I realised that instead of looking at my surroundings through a viewfinder, I was using the lens of my dyer’s eye.

What word would I choose to describe that precise colour of beech leaves as they melt from their fresh summer greens into buttery yellow? How could I create the flaming russet fringe of feathery bracken or the pinker dusky rose of bilberry bushes or the flamboyant screaming scarlet of jewelled rowan berries? Would a light touch of palest grey, a fine detail of charcoal and a splash of the most delicate soft sage green do justice to a lichen-encrusted birch branch? As for the fungi, where to start . . ?

Six hours, two sore feet and a very happy heart later it was time to say goodbye to Muniellos once again, but with my head ringing with the earthy delights of bark and berry, leaf and lichen, moss and mushroom and everything else that creates the essence and spirit of all things sylvan, I was already planning an appointment with my dyepot . . .

My first thought was to finish spinning a current skein of Romney, then try to recreate a mix of some of the colours I had enjoyed as we wandered through that vast forest. However, on reflection, what I felt I had brought home with me from Muniellos was a deep awareness of unblemished nature and this should be my starting point rather than any specific ideas of colour and shade. Yes, the time had come to finally stop procrastinating and try some natural dyeing. For anyone who knows me, it may seem strange that so far my forays into Dyeing World have involved synthetic dyes rather than natural dyestuffs but there is a good (or at least, thought-provoking) reason for this. Most plant materials used for dyeing are adjective, which means the fibre needs to be treated with a mordant (from Latin mordere – to bite) in order to fix the pigment. The most commonly used mordants are alum, iron, copper and tin – all metal salts, none of which is particularly pleasant and some of which are downright poisonous. Every time I have teetered on the edge of having a go I’ve drawn back, wondering if this is really any better for the environment than the specialist acid dyes I’ve used so far.

Time for some research, then, and in particular into which tiny number of plant dyes are substantive and therefore not in need of a mordant . . . and how thrilled was I to find that top of the list was walnut, both hulls and leaves. Now walnut trees are not native to Spain, but they’ve been here a long time – since the Romans brought them, in fact – they grow like stink and we have a whole nuttery of them. How perfect for my ‘essence of woodland’ dyeing adventure.

To make the dyebath, I collected green walnut leaves straight from the tree, chopped them into small pieces to help yield more dye and simmered them in spring water on top of The Beast for an hour or so until the liquid was a rich caramel brown. What a lovely, spicy, herbal smell – definitely far better than those chemical dyes. Roger said it smelt like something good was cooking!

I usually prefer to dye skeins of spun yarn but as this was a huge learning experience I decided to opt for combed Merino top instead and, just out of interest (this felt like a day for being daring), I added a small amount of unbleached tussah silk as well. My plan was that if everything went pear- shaped at least with unspun fleece I had more rescue options than with spun yarn.

Normally, I soak the fibre in a commercial wool scourer before dyeing; I expect raw fleece to be dirty, smelly and greasy but it’s amazing just how grubby the commercially washed stuff is, too. However, in the spirit of all things natural, I used the tiniest amount of an eco washing-up liquid instead.

I strained the dyebath, returned it to the pot and cooled it a little, then in went the fibres. I simmered them gently for half an hour then removed them from the heat and left the whole lot to steep overnight.

The next morning revealed the final colour, which had deepened from a pale latte to a creamy coffee fudge in the wool and an even deeper shade of brown in the silk, which I found interesting. Obviously, the silk was a darker shade to start with but whenever I’ve coloured it with chemical dyes before, it has always come out several shades lighter than the wool.

I could see straight away what a different quality this natural dye had to a chemical one, softer and more alive somehow as if smudged and blended from a range of shades like a muted rainbow. Those harsh synthetic edges just weren’t there. What’s more, there was enough dyebath (which interestingly smelled of prunes!) left to keep and use again – and if I didn’t want to do that, the spent leaves and liquid could simply go on the compost heap without causing any environmental concerns. Well, how wonderful. Now I was on a roll. Why stop there? I mean, if you’re going to experiment with something new and interesting, you might as well do it properly: enter the world of modifiers. Basically, dyeing is chemistry and much of what unfolds is down to pH as much as anything else (also the quality of water – it’s no coincidence that dyeing workshops used to be located in soft water areas). By steeping the dyed fibre in an acid or alkaline modifier it is possible to change the shade and so create several colours from one dyestuff and so I decided this had to be done, at least with the wool. I made an acid bath from citric acid crystals and water and an alkaline one from washing soda and water; no need to heat again, just pop the fibre in . . . anything that’s going to happen apparently does so within half an hour. The change in the acid bath was so subtle as to be barely noticeable; I’m interested to see if there is a greater difference once the wool has dried. The alkaline bath couldn’t have been a more different story. Wow! What’s fascinating isn’t just the extreme change to a more yellow colour but the range of different shades that appeared, including a very deep brown and reddish rusty colour.

Hung out to dry in morning shade. From left to right: unbleached tussah silk without modifier, Merino with alkaline modifier, Merino without modifier, Merino with acid modifier. The actual colours are richer than the photo suggests.
In afternoon sunlight, starting to dry and fluff up again. These colours are truer: can’t wait to get spinning! 🙂

Well, I am just so very happy! This is exactly what I’ve wanted dyeing to be and I feel completely inspired to continue, albeit in the knowledge that at some point I am going to have to confront the issue of mordants once again. In the meantime, I have another substantive dye – madder root – to play with and a wealth of natural seasonal beauty on the doorstep to inspire and feed my colour habit. Not a bad way to dye, don’t you think? 🙂