Simple p-leisures

One of the best things for me about being with family and friends is the opportunity to indulge in shared interests; simple things, little leisure pursuits and happy hours that make wonderful memories. When we get together with Sam and Adrienne, walking, cooking and sharing good food and music are pretty much guaranteed to be top of the list and the few days we have just spent together were no exception.

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One of our top priorities was the long-awaited trip to the Cabo Busto cake shop  where we had promised to treat our visitors to a belated birthday cake (and of course, it would have been very rude of us not to join them!). What an amazing place it is, set in a village house brightly painted in red and green and run by a friendly and talented young couple who are very happy to explain what each cake is made from and to (thankfully) allow customers plenty of time to choose. These are not so much cakes as exquisite works of  art and trying to pick one from the gorgeous selection is demanding stuff! After much deliberation, Adrienne was thrilled to indulge in a creation made entirely from almonds (bottom left); Sam opted for the sumptuous dark chocolate hit (top left); Roger plumped for a most beautiful confection celebrating honey (top right) and- no surprise- I was drawn to that soft, summery shortbread topped with a beguiling little heartsease flower. You are welcome to eat your choices in the pretty garden from which the flower was picked but we opted to savour them in a beauty spot by the sea. What a great start to our long weekend!

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Staying with the coastal theme, we took the incredibly steep path down to Playa de Gueirúa, a beach which fascinates me not least because the tide seems to come in from two directions.

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Adrienne and I share a love of pretty pebbles so while Roger and Sam explored the beach and cliffs, we were happy to pootle about looking for examples of interesting colours and patterns, texture and sparkle.

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Sam’s interest in the stones veered more towards practising his skimming skills; he also played chicken with the tide and lost, soaking his enormous walking boots in salt water. I was reminded of a phase in his childhood when we didn’t go anywhere (and I mean anywhere) without a complete change of clothes and footwear for him because he always managed to end up soaking wet, even where there was apparently no water. I smiled to see there is still a whisper of the little boy in the man he has become! (By the way, in case you are wondering –  he isn’t wearing a kilt in any of these photos, it’s a tartan shirt tied round his waist.)

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Another day, another walk, this time up the río Esva gorge. It was the second time in three weeks for Roger and myself but I don’t think we could ever tire of such a beautiful spot. It was interesting to see how things had moved on since our previous walk  despite the recent inclement weather. The flowers were not quite as spectacular but it was good to see that new little stars had opened.

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Heavy rain had certainly swollen the river which literally boomed down the gorge in a state of white rage and water seemed to ooze from every pore in the rocks. There was a fair bit of scrambling over rocks to be done, but ironically it was the flights of steps and boardwalks made from local oak rather than the rocks that were lethally slippery.

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With this in mind, we decided not to return the same way but to take a longer route back up  and over the mountain. Well, why not? We had plenty of time after all. Plenty of food, too. Last time we did this walk together, we left the picnic in the car not realising quite how long we would be; oh my goodness, we were all so hungry and grumpy by the time we had finished! So, fortified by a wonderful spread – little dishes left over from a tapas evening, homemade sourdough rolls, a very gooey, fruity, seed-laden flapjack, peaches and apricots – eaten at a picnic table under the trees, we set off up the mountain. It’s a steep old climb but well worth the effort as the views from the top are completely stunning and once again, we had the place totally to ourselves – just the birds and insects for company. Perfect.

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Crossing the river for the final time, it was decided that a game of poohsticks was needed. This is the kind of nonsense we love, something that is simple, free and – let’s be honest – rather pointless, but which always gives rise to silly banter and much laughter. The competitors readied themselves at the start line . . .

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. . . then dashed to the other side of the bridge to eagerly await the arrival of their sticks.

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Braveheart thought he had it in the bag . . .

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. . . but victory was snatched from him in the last seconds by Adrienne, the reigning poohstick champion (who was very demure and restrained in her celebration, as you can see).

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Ah, time to go home and light the barbecue . . . which in reality ended up being the stove when torrential rain set in yet again, this time with a a dose of thunderstorms for good measure. 😦

We weren’t downhearted, though, as the next day took us to the Muniellos nature reserve in southern Asturias for a walk that promised to be rather special. For a start, only twenty people a day are allowed to do it; access is strictly by prior permission from the government and you can only apply once in any year so we felt very lucky to have obtained the necessary permits. The walk follows a 20km mountain trail to an altitude of 1400 metres through the largest oak forest in Spain and some of the most ancient and primitive woodland in Europe. The bald facts, however, don’t even begin to describe the sheer beauty and majesty of this place. The views are utterly breathtaking: mile upon mile of unbroken forest sweeping right to the tops of the towering mountains; given some of these are roughly a couple of Snowdons high, that’s pretty impressive.

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I have often struggled to convey the green-ness of Asturias but here it surpassed everything I have seen so far. From the ancient oaks with their massive hollow boles (some are six metres in diameter) to graceful birch, brooding holly and yew, glossy beech and hazel and a wealth of lush undergrowth there was just layer upon layer of green. Imagine an ancient oak, its gnarled bark wrapped in mosses with ferns growing from the cracks and silvered lichen dripping from every branch; magical, indeed.

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This walk is not for the fainthearted; in fact, there are strict rules as to who can and can’t do it, and for good reason. Distance and steep climb aside, the path is hard going in many places, narrow and precipitous and often becoming a scramble across scree slopes or rock faces above vertiginous drops. I don’t usually carry a stick when I walk but this was one place I was happy to have my sturdy Asturian pole in hand!

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One of the outstanding features of the forest is the complete lack of human inhabitants and minimal human impact; here nature calls the tune and there is a wealth of natural beauty to appreciate and enjoy.

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What a privilege to walk back in time and experience the northern forests of centuries ago, the pure scale and unspoilt wildness of it all. No wonder this is where the largest concentration of bears chooses to live. No wonder so much hard work goes into preserving this sacred space. What a very precious place it is. Paradise indeed.

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Having shared a picnic lunch at the highest point, we started our three-hour descent with an hour’s scramble down a rocky stream bed, balancing on slippery boulders and trying to avoid wet feet. If you are very tall with huge feet, then straddling a stream is easy . . .

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. . . but if you are shorter with smaller feet, things can be a bit trickier.

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There were several times when I almost got very wet (the worst being later on when I lost my footing next to the much wider and deeper river); I was just hoping that in a timely role reversal, Sam had a change of clothes and footwear for me in that bag! If I’m absolutely honest, I wouldn’t have minded getting wet; it wasn’t cold and it would have been worth it for the amazing day we had spent together. On our return, the warden encouraged us to apply again in a year’s time and I know we will, maybe in autumn next time as the colours must be truly spectacular then.

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So to our final jaunt, a walk along the beach at San Juan de Arena and another picnic before trundling to the airport. The sea was wild and moody, the beach empty and invigorating but sadly, due to a minor technical hitch with the camera, I have no photos to share. Never mind; I have captured the moment in my memory and that, after all, is what counts. 🙂

 

 

Nature’s garden: Part 3

Yesterday as we rambled and scrambled up the dramatic and somewhat vertiginous gorge of the río Esva,  I promised myself that I would not obsess about the wild flowers and trees and I would definitely not feel the urge to write a blog post about them. Um, right. As you can see, my resolve didn’t last more than a few moments. Honestly, it’s like dangling an exquisite yarn in front of me: in the presence of so much colour and texture and downright gorgeousness, my willpower fades away like morning mist.

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So, as in the very best fairy tales and oration good things always come in threes, here is the final part of my ‘wild flowers and walking’ trilogy set in yet another contrasting landscape. This is a world of river and rockface, of high and dry light-flooded spaces and deep, damp, mossy places. Here the woodland scrambles to dizzy heights, clinging to the ragged rock strata in an astonishing festival of verdant celebration. Here the river, wide and clear, tumbles and rumbles over boulders, gouging its sinuous path out of the jagged landscape. Here sleek otters play, bibbed dippers bob, carefree sand martins wheel and spin in an exhibition of masterful aerobatics. Here, once again, nature has demonstrated its artistic prowess in sweeps of breath-taking floral artistry.

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Truly magical! 🙂

 

 

Nature’s garden: the sequel

I had no intention of making a series of wildflowers-and-walking posts but honestly, how could I not share another treasure chest of floral riches? In complete contrast to our coastal walk, this time we headed to the high mountains and ancient deciduous woodlands of southern Asturias: in short, serious bear country. Here lives the largest concentration of the rare Cantabrian brown bear (oso pardo) in Asturias and who could blame them?

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Roger and I last walked here in the autumn when the trees were all blazing in their flaming autumnal flamboyance; it was fascinating to return in such a different season, especially as the effect of altitude spun us backwards in time to enjoy an earlier taste of spring once again. The overwhelming star of the landscape for me, though, was the Spanish heath, swathes and swathes of gorgeous magenta draping the mountains like an opulent cloak above the greenery. Breathtaking.

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If only I could have captured the tumultuous sound of countless bees going about their business in those  purple bells. No wonder there were so many hives there, not scattered across the mountainsides higgeldy-piggeldy but organised behind electric fences or the protection of traditional stone walls circles. Bears and honey are a classic combination, after all!

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The extent of the forests is awe-inspiring, so stunning clothed in the bright greens of springtime. The oaks, however, were a little tardy with just the first hint of leaves unfurling; hung with filigree silver lichens, they made an ethereal contrast to the burgeoning glossy greens around them.

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There were flowers here, too; so many gentle splashes of colour and perfume to delight the senses. A softer palette to the coastal flowers, a pretty parade of graceful woodland beauties; once again, I was in awe of nature’s exquisite gardening prowess.

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¡Gracias, Asturias!

Nature’s garden

Walking between Puerto de Vega and Playa de Frejulfe, we were treated to a breathtakingly sumptuous array of wild flowers.

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Blankets of pastel pink thrift and snowy sea campion drifted across the clifftops and stitched between them were skeins and spots of so many other plants, creating a rich embroidery where even the mundane shone to full effect. What a wonderful floral fabric of colour and scent, texture and form and all set against that stunning blue-drenched backdrop of sky and sea.

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This is coastal Asturias it its best; we might not have the scope for a sweeping flower garden at home but who needs one when we have such natural beauty on our doorstep? 🙂

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Gardening: go on, give it a go!

If this post inspires just one person to plant one seed, then I shall be over the moon – and if it’s you, please leave a comment and let me know. You will have made my year! 🙂

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Bright beauty: I’m not the only thing in the garden to have turned my face to the sun this week.

For us, gardening is not so much a pastime as a way of life. We spend time in the garden every day and when that means all day, I’m a very happy bunny! We have moved several times over the years (this is our tenth home together) and when it comes to looking for somewhere to live, the garden has always been the most important ‘room’ in the house. To me, growing food and flowers seems such a fundamentally human thing to do; we are lucky to have a good-sized garden, but great things are possible even in the tiniest of spaces. It’s amazing how much can be grown in a pot alone – and what a simple but wonderful pleasure it is to raise a few fresh herbs to liven up your meals or a show of spring bulbs to brighten your day.

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Marjoram and thyme grown in pots: we have been picking these all winter.

Now I realise there are many, many people who don’t like gardening and I understand that: I feel exactly the same way about shopping! However, I often wonder if in some cases the reluctance to garden is down to misconceptions about what it’s really like?

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What is a weed? In the end, it’s all a matter of opinion.

Gardening is hard work: it doesn’t have to be, it’s as much or little work as you make it. You don’t have to create a manicured, weed-free, bowling green lawn, neatly clipped hedges and straight-edged borders full of prize dahlias or show-stopping onions . . . if time is short or enthusiasm low, keep it simple. Smile at ‘weeds’, plant a few bulbs, sprinkle a few seeds then sit back and watch them grow.

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Poke a pea into the ground and let nature do the rest (actually, this one is self-set – even better.).
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Golden pak choi: there will be no more meals for us from this plant but instead of pulling it out I shall leave it to flower –  lazy gardening, but it’s a great nectar source for insects and will set seed I can collect and plant again.

Gardening is expensive: if you go out and buy every piece of garden equipment or large pots of ‘seasonal interest’ plants from garden centres, then it will cost a pretty penny  . . . but it isn’t necessary to do those things. You only need a handful of basic tools and they don’t have to be top of the range or brand new. I have been using the same hoe and rake for 30 years and before that they were my grandfather’s, so who knows how old they are? (It’s not a case of that old ‘three new heads and five new handles’ joke either – they are the originals!) They work and that’s all that matters.

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Still going strong after all these years . . . a bit like the gardeners, really.

Plants are pricey but small plants are cheaper and they soon grow into big ones; car boot or village hall sales are great places to pick up bargains, and friendly gardeners are usually generous with handing out spares or cuttings. Seeds are relatively cheap and the the no-frills ranges offer great value for money with very little waste. I am a lazy gardener who loves to let seeds self-set around the garden; if I don’t like where they are, it’s easy enough to move them or compost them . . . otherwise as far as I’m concerned, they are plants for free and no work. Perfect.

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Annoying weeds or wonder seeds? Californian poppy and mizuna, self-set in cracked concrete: a splash of colour and a taste of salad leaves to come in my book.

Gardening is difficult: there are so many sources of advice and information about gardening that it can be pretty overwhelming, even for experienced gardeners. If you are planning to grow a camellia in a waterlogged frost-pocket of alkaline soil, you probably won’t get an easy run, but what I call basic, down-to-earth gardening isn’t hard and the best way to find out is to do it. Don’t worry about making mistakes; that’s what life is about and how we learn. So much of gardening is simple common sense: if the ground is still cold, wait a little longer before you sow seeds; if it’s very dry, water it; if plants grow tall and floppy, tie them up or support them with something; if you don’t like runner beans, don’t grow them; if your strawberries are ripe, eat them!

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Komastuna – an easy-peasy winter green. Sow, pick, eat.

Gardening is boring: when I was a teenager I’d have certainly given this one the thumbs up, but as soon as I had my own garden, my attitude changed completely. If you make a garden that is yours, a true reflection of your character, tastes and interests, then it will never, ever be boring. I have always been fascinated by nature so for me, the garden is full of wonders: the soil structure and its myriad life, the germination of a seed, the pattern on a leaf or colours in a flower, the busyness of insects and birds, the sweetness of a baby carrot . . . I love a garden of higgeldy-piggeldy chaos, vegetables grown in strangely-shaped patches with flowers sprawling between, teeming with colour and life. How could that ever be boring?

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Borage is one of my favourite plants. It pops up everywhere, flowers here all the year round and is a great source of nectar for honey bees.

Make your garden your own: if you want gladioli or purple cauliflowers or gnomes with fishing rods, have them. If you want to grow vegetables on full show in your front garden, go ahead – break a few rules and conventions, you’re allowed to. Include things that are fun and make you smile; choose things that make you glad to be outdoors and alive. Whatever you do, don’t forget a seat or hammock: gardens should never be all about work so make time and space to rest and play. Put the kettle on, pull a cork, sit back and relax . . . but please don’t be bored!

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It’s not all work: make time for tea (or your preferred tipple).

 

So, back to our little corner of Planet Earth. One of the greatest things about living in Asturias is that the climate is very mild and gentle, which means the ground is never too wet or cold to work – even in January.

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Celandines in the sunshine and lambs in the valley . . . there’s a hint of something special in the air!

It has been lovely to spend so much time outside this week doing jobs around the garden and reflecting on why it is such a huge part of our life. There are many different reasons why people like to garden, all of them equally valid and important; here is my personal list . . .

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I love the garden in all seasons.

Given the choice, I would always opt for being out of doors. I love to be out in the fresh air, come rain or shine  – for me, it beats being shut in a building or vehicle any day – and ‘things to do’ in the garden give me just the excuse I need. The benefits of fresh air and a daily dose of daylight have been well-catalogued and seem like a good bet in trying to take responsibility for my own health and well-being.

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I don’t need asking twice to be outside, especially when the sun is shining.

There’s exercise, too: admittedly, you don’t burn too many calories pruning the roses, but digging and forking, pushing heavy wheelbarrows, lugging watering cans and the like are a great physical workout. Then there are the footsteps; I’ve often thought it would be interesting to wear a pedometer during a day in the garden . . . I suspect I cover many miles. Totally immersed in nature, surrounded by the beauty of our garden, hands in the earth growing vegetables and nose in the flowers – what a wonderful way to spend my time!

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Simple beauty.

Growing our own food removes us as far as possible from the huge chain of events and processes which is the scary beast of world food production. It keeps everything very simple and (quite literally) down to earth. We know where our carrots came from, how they were grown and what has been done to produce them because we’ve done it all ourselves. We know exactly what we are eating . . .  and that is a great thing.

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Fresh new growth on rainbow chard planted last summer.

We garden organically. This is not from any particular political, ethical or moral viewpoint or because we follow any philosophical or fashionable trends but because to us, it makes perfect sense. If we truly are what we eat, then we prefer our food to be as natural, nourishing and toxin-free as possible. Our lettuces might be a bit slug-nibbled but they have not been sprayed with anything or washed in bleach. Our parsnips might be funny shapes and our cabbages different sizes but they have been grown in soil enriched only with well-rotted manure and home-produced compost. What’s more, they’re delicious!

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It’s not a perfect cabbage . . . but it’s not bad, either.

We have no problem with ‘Five a Day’ either; even at this time of year, we can choose a variety of fruit and vegetables to enjoy and the great thing is that they are all truly seasonal. The garden might not look much in the middle of winter but we are currently eating leeks, cabbage, purple sprouting broccoli, squash, spinach, pak choi, komatsuna, Florence fennel, mizuna, kiwi, pears, walnuts and a range of herbs.  I would far rather go slithering about in mud to pick a few fresher-than-fresh leeks from the garden than pull a packet of green beans that have been grown halfway across the world from the fridge. Measuring food footsteps rather than food miles is a wonderful way to live and it beats shopping (remember, I’m not a fan)! It’s the same with flowers: why buy imported roses when a simple posy of seasonal flowers, leaves or even coloured twigs can be gathered from our patch to enjoy indoors?

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The January patch doesn’t look pretty . . . but there is still more veg than we can eat.

Our choice to garden organically and the methods we use (or choose not to use) are closely tied up with our great respect for and appreciation of the environment. We have always seen ourselves as stewards rather than owners, simply passing through and sharing our space with an amazing host of flora and fauna in (we hope) a balanced ecosystem. Even if we live here for the rest of our lives, it will be a mere blink of the eye in the history of the land so for us, it’s important to care for all that we have.

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This week we have been removing a fence of rusty wire and laying a row of hazels behind to make a hedge: not only will it look much better but it will also be a valuable habitat and food source for wildlife.

Something we have noticed over the last year is how much the bird population in the garden has increased from when we first moved here. In one morning, I noted down the following list (these were birds that were physically in the garden – if I’d included the ones I saw or heard in the surrounding fields, hedges and woodland or flying over, the list of species would be much longer): robin, wren, blue tit, great tit, long-tailed tit, pied wagtail, redwing, song thrush, blackbird, blackcap, chaffinch, goldfinch, bullfinch, greater spotted woodpecker, green woodpecker, house sparrow, dunnock, serin. Now I know there are probably many people who could produce a much longer list from their garden but the point is that we don’t feed the birds in winter here: there is an abundance of natural food available all winter and I’ve yet to see wild bird food for sale anywhere. The birds are not coming in to visit tables or feed stations but of their own volition; we’re not sure what has made the difference, but we are very, very happy about it. I waste so much time leaning on my fork and watching their antics, even if that does include the bullfinches expertly stripping the peach trees of their buds!

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Pecking order: the kiwi vine is still dripping with fruit and several species of our feathered visitors are tucking in.

In the same way, I have been truly thrilled to see far more frogs and toads around the place – I’m currently wondering how to persuade a couple to take up residence in the polytunnel, they are such great slug-slurpers. We have a healthy population of lizards who have been happy to take up residence in the dry stone walls we have built for terraces. Last year I watched a very modest little one crunch its way through a relatively enormous snail shell and scoff the meaty meal inside in a matter of moments. A complete hero as far as I’m concerned . . . time to build a few more walls, I think.

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Insects are also very welcome visitors who have been much in evidence this week.

Our garden is not a place of work or endless list of chores that need doing; it is not only where we grow our food and flowers. We use it just as much – if not more – as a place of rest and relaxation. We cook and eat our meals outside whenever we can; we wander about simply enjoying what’s there; we sit with a mug of coffee or glass of wine, chatting, laughing, relaxing . . . it’s such a lovely place to just be, and that’s what makes it so precious. Go on, try it! 🙂

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Of death and life

November 1st is Dia de Todos los Santos in Spain, a day of holiday where people dress in their Sunday best and take flowers to cemeteries to pay their respects to their ancestors. It’s a day to remember and honour the dead and we saw many gatherings and dignified processions in the towns and villages we passed through, heading out to explore the land to the south of us.

The Parque Natural de las Fuentes del Narcea, Degaña e Ibias covers a huge area of very beautiful and wild countryside, home to much wildlife including the endangered Cantabrian brown bear and our plan was to follow the ‘tourist’ route through the mountains, looking for hiking trails to follow at a later date.

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The drive was spectacular until, reaching the top of a mountain pass, a landscape of utter devastation appeared before our eyes.

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Wild fires raged here several weeks ago, their smoke – fanned by Hurricane Ophelia -travelling far to the north. It’s impossible to describe the sheer extent of the damage or capture it with a camera: mountainside after mountainside burned to a cinder, the flames having jumped across roads and travelled with lightning speed through the dry brush. The heat must have been immense if the melted road signs we saw were anything to go by and in its wake a charred, barren and eerily macabre landscape remains.

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The courage of those charged with fighting these fires is beyond compare. I felt an impossible sadness in the face of so much devastation and destruction, of the loss of habitat and life. The day really was all about death, it seemed . . .

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. . . but not quite. Nature, after all, is a great survivor and it will fight back. True, it may take a long time, but the plants will grow and green the landscape once again, the wildlife will return. Pondering death also reminds us how fragile and precious life is and how important it is to celebrate and enjoy this wonderful gift to the full each and every day. For me, that’s not through over-indulgent, selfish hedonism but in finding true pleasure in the simplest of things and the rest of our day presented so many wonderful opportunities to do just that.

Beyond the fire damage, the landscape was completely stunning. Here are some of the best ancient woodlands in Europe, the broad-leafed forests that took root once the glaciers had carved out their deep valleys. The autumn colours (ah, death again!) were at their most spectacular, setting the mountain sides alight in a blaze of golden glory. No wonder bears choose to live here, it is utterly beautiful and so wild.

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At the top of the Puerto del Connio pass (at 1315m, just 30m lower than Ben Nevis) we stood and listened to . . . nothing. There was complete and utter silence. Incredible. The view wasn’t bad either.

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Who could resist the chance of lunch in such a pretty picnic site next to the river? We ate chestnut and leek pie followed by peach and blueberry streusel cake – both homemade and kept in the freezer for just such an occasion – washed down with a flask of strong, hot coffee. Perfect autumn picnic food!

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From the interpretation centre in Muniellos, we enjoyed a 7.5 k walk through bear country, having the tracks and wild places to ourselves for much of the walk. No bears (I think we would have to be extraordinarily lucky to see one) but there were so many things of seasonal beauty to enjoy.

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For me, a day out like this sums up the benefits of the simple life we lead. For a start, it’s a treat so it’s always exciting and interesting. It cost us nothing except the price of the petrol to get there and back (and that’s relatively cheap here). We didn’t spend any money anywhere and came back with no souvenirs except photos and memories. We took nothing except our lunch and a camera. No rucksack. No expensive hiking gear. No smart picnic kit. No phone. Nothing. We enjoyed fresh air and warmth, fantastically stunning views and the beauty of nature, a good walk to stretch our bodies, peace and tranquility and each other’s company. We tend to gravitate towards wild places because that’s how we are but such simple days are equally as possible in urban places: some of the best days out we’ve had have been trailing around cities, avoiding the ‘must-do’ sights and discovering far better things in little back streets or hidden green spaces. The point is, it’s a day out that requires not money and stuff but open eyes and minds and an appreciation of simple pleasures. An affirmation of the joy of being alive. Priceless.

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