Sensing Spring

Communicate: share or exchange information, news, or ideas.

Commune: share one’s intimate thoughts or feelings with (someone), especially on a spiritual level.

One of the blessings of our lifestyle here is having proper time to communicate with others; I love to keep in touch with a wide circle of family and friends, to catch up with what they are doing, to share their stories and thoughts as well as exchange little snippets and tales of what we are up to ourselves. In a rush, it’s so easy just to touch on the superficial, but with time and effort it’s possible to go beyond the facts – the who or what or when – and engage at a deeper level of interest, of sharing, celebrating or commiserating. What a wonderful gift to give someone, our full, unhindered, focused attention, listening with a quiet mind and open heart. It’s a precious thing indeed.

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I suppose it is about moving from ‘communication’ to ‘communing’ and the same is true of time spent in nature. To explore the world like a young child is not childish but childlike; there is a world of difference. As adults in the hustle and bustle of modern society, our auditory and visual senses are bombarded and overloaded, day in, day out; how often do we allow ourselves to indulge all our senses playfully, without bias or preconception, opening our hearts and minds to new experiences and possibilities? How would a child respond to the jewelled flutter of a butterfly, the delicate fragility of a robin’s egg, the scratchy wingbeat of a crow, the secrets hidden in a tulip’s cavern, the arcing iridescence of a rainbow? When we give ourselves permission to stop and listen and feel and smell and taste as if everything were a brand new shiny experience, then even the simplest or most mundane thing can seem like a minor miracle.

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So, when spring came bounding up the steps and hammered breathlessly on the door this week – ‘Come out and play! See what I’ve found!’  – I didn’t need asking twice. Senses engaged, I let myself be led by the hand. Budburst started here some time ago; the warm-up act of hazel, willow and birch is already in full verdant splendour, fluffing and puffing up the woodlands with streaks of brilliance like the joyful sweep of a child’s paintbrush. Lime. Chartreuse. Pea.

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Now the nuttery adds its voice: oak and chestnut and walnut leaves unfurling like uncurling fingers, arms akimbo, in a seam of coppery gold that echoes the iron-rich rocks below.

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In between, pooled like silver moonlight, a confection of graceful cherries whisper and shiver in delicate white. I am reminded of Housman’s celebrated lines: loveliest of trees, the cherry now is hung with bloom along the bough. Shropshire poetry, Shropshire roots, a Shropshire lass. Some things run very deep.

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It’s not all about trees, of course. Beneath the emerging canopy is a burgeoning, bustling, stretching busyness led by fern and foxglove, followed by a jostling crowd of others, some brash and extravagant, others quiet and diminutive.

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What a feast for the eye, all this shape and shade and shimmer, but try seeing it differently for a change . . . Is it a shepherd’s crook? A seahorse? A question mark?

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In this world of waking and stretching, of rising sap and soft, silky leaf-lets, of the rich mineral smell of moss and bark and boulder, I need no more than the green. The lush, fresh, newness of it all is enough to feed my soul. So many shades and tints, how could I name them all? More poetry springs to mind, this time from W.H Davies: I also love a quiet place that’s green, away from all mankind.

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Ah, but I don’t get away with that one easily: just look at this frolicsome floral dance! Such a brazen parade of flirtatious fluttering and wiggling of petal and pollen, of saucy colour and come hither looks. Who could fail to fall under their seductive charms?

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There is so much that I can’t capture in photographs, so many moments where an image is not enough and words seem hopelessly inadequate: the melodious cadence of blackbird; the harmonious warbling of robin and blackcap; the shouting echo of songthrush; the twitter and curse of tit and wren; the chiffchaff and cuckoo calling their own names. How do I share the velvety buzz of the busy bumbles, the sulphuric flash of yellow butterflies, the dash and zip of sun-warmed lizards, the furry flit and whirr of a dusky bat? The shifting shapes of feathery clouds, the play of sunlight across the valley, the electric crackle of a retreating storm, the deep, ancient, fecund smell of the earth after rain?

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No matter: it’s about being in the moment, feeling, experiencing, living. Memories and records can wait. Stories can be shaped and shared later. This is communication at its very best. Thank you, spring – what a lovely chat we’ve had! What a wonderful time we’ve shared!

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Simply celebrating

Christmas means different things to different people and how it is marked and celebrated comes down to personal preferences. I’m sure that many people would think our Christmas was very boring – even miserable, maybe: no pile of presents; no tree; no turkey or mountain of festive food; no frantic shopping trips or round of visits and visitors. We have had huge traditional family Christmases in the past but I have to admit there has been something lovely about paring it down in recent years to a very simple celebration.

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The subject of family perhaps needs a little more discussion before I go any further. We have been asked how on earth we can bear to live abroad when we have young grandchildren in the UK: surely we miss out on so much? Well no, not really. Ironically, I have seen more of our grandchildren in the time we have lived in Spain than I did in the same amount of time living in the UK, where full-time work and all the responsibilities and demands of life left me short on ‘Granny time.’ I’ve also seen more of the little munchkins than a fair few of their other UK relatives have in that time, and the truly wonderful thing is that we might only get together three or four times a year, but each one is like a mini-Christmas. I’ve been reflecting this week on some of the things we have done together in 2017: had day trips out, eaten cafe and picnic lunches, had long walks in pretty places, climbed trees, made dens, built towers, jumped in puddles and paddled in rivers, grazed and nibbled around gardens, shared ice creams and gingerbread men, explored caves and ‘castles’, done very serious business with toy farms, horses, machines and Lego, coloured pictures, stuck stickers, curled up with stories, gazed at the moon (and talked about why you can’t go there on a tractor) . . . priceless moments. You can’t wrap any of that and put it under a tree. 🙂

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So, to our quiet and simple Christmas here. One of the things I value now that we aren’t tied to the timetable of work is the fact that we have the chance to acknowledge and celebrate the Winter Solstice. For me, the solstices and equinoxes all mark important turning points in the wheel of the year and I like to spend time at each one reflecting on their significance. I love the Winter Solstice! Yes, I know it’s a while before we really notice the days lengthening and of course the coldest months are yet to come but . . . there is something so joyful about knowing we are turning a corner and spring will come again. I’m not fussed on tinsel and glitter but I have always enjoyed gathering winter greenery and what better day to choose than one where the sun ‘stands still’ – especially when it is shining?

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A short walk up the lane and I turned to look at the view; I never tire of seeing those beautiful mountains and there is something so comforting about the wood smoke spiralling up from the chimney. No need for a Christmas tree in the house when we can enjoy those enormous beauties next door!

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No holly for the house, either: it is a protected species here and cannot be cut. That’s no problem as I’m happy to enjoy it outside; we are blessed with swathes of it in our woodland and I have recently found several tiny new self-set trees growing in the garden – precious things indeed.

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There was no shortage of colour and greenery and I found myself revelling in the simple beauty of the trees around me, native or otherwise.

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Even on the shortest day of the year, my very favourite spot at the end of our forest track, was bathed in sunlight. One resolution for 2018 is to build a simple seat here.

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Over an hour of wandering about with my head in nature, five minutes to ‘create’ in a vase. My kind of Christmas decoration! Later that evening, we sat and watched the sun go down, marking the spot against the mountainous skyline.

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I’ve heard of an elderly couple who pack smoked salmon and a bottle of bubbly and enjoy them as a picnic every Christmas Day as they have done for all the years they have been together. How lovely to be brave enough and imaginative enough to do something different. We did have a delicious roast dinner (local free-range chicken, most definitely not turkey) and a pile of vegetables from the garden but chose to do that on the 21st; for Christmas dinner, we had good old-fashioned homemade steak and kidney pie. Well, why not? We’ve indulged in a couple of cooked breakfast, too, enjoying Vita’s lovely eggs . . . and sending her box back as full as it came. This is the sort of gift-giving I love.

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It has been so good to spend time outside and smile at those little signs of hope for a new growing season. The peas and broad beans are through the ground and enjoying the current mild weather.

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Borage and calendula have provided splashes of colour non-stop but there are a few new arrivals to enjoy, too.

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Given the weather forecast, we decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve a day early: yesterday just shouted out for a barbecue in the early evening sunshine (and yes, Roger is wearing shorts!).

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It’s wet and windy today for the real event but that’s no bother. I don’t know about resolutions but of one thing I am very sure: whatever 2018 brings, we will continue to enjoy this simple, lovely life as fully as we can every single day. That’s better than all the Christmas presents in the world. Happy New Year!

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Simple pleasures, golden treasures

No question that Black Friday and its friends have taken root in Western Europe, despite the ironic lack of the Thanksgiving celebration of gratitude to precede them. People like to shop and that’s fine. I don’t, and that’s fine, too. I don’t feel the need to follow fashion, have the ‘latest’, grab bargains or accumulate stuff so in all honesty, the long weekend of frenzied shopping completely passes me by. What I have been doing is reflecting on all the things I have been up to over the last week that have brought me great pleasure; many of them very simple, most of them costing nothing but all of them bringing me more joy than all the retail therapy in the world. Here, then, is my list of little treasures:

Holding our two new little grandsons for the first time, kissing their soft, silky heads and breathing in the sweet baby smell of them. Enjoying lots of fun and nonsense, games and stories and jumping in puddles with their older siblings.

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Looking for the next muddy puddle . . . 

Enjoying  a long walk on the South Downs with Sam and Adrienne. Okay, so the weather was rubbish and conditions underfoot were a quagmire but the fresh air and exercise were great and there was much chat and laughter as we slithered along. Devil’s Dyke, a  deep dry chalk valley,  was spectacular even in the pouring rain. Our picnic lunch was delicious: Adrienne’s ‘squashage’ (go on, try saying it!) rolls of sublime homemade rough puff pastry wrapped round spicy roast squash, chorizo and chestnuts. So seasonal and utterly scrumptious.

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Picnic time and nowhere dry to sit . . . but the food more than made up for that slight inconvenience!

Coming home to a house that feels for the first time more like a home than a hovel: warm, dry, bright, clean, comfy and smelling of new wood. Coming home, too, to warm sunshine and beautiful blue skies.

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Harvesting, cooking and eating piles of fresh vegetables from the garden, some of them late surprises: who said we’d had the last of the peppers and courgettes? Who thought the late peas and cannellini beans had really had their day? There was also a surprise in the form of a good bunch of purple sprouting broccoli; this is supposed to be one of our spring veg, but it’s decided to put in an early appearance . . . well, I suppose we can only eat it once!

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Butternut squash, carrot,  Florence fennel, courgette and green pepper from the garden, ready to roast.

Admiring plenty of summer colours still lingering in the garden.

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Welcoming a visit from our lovely neighbour Vita. Seeing washing out on the line, she realised we were back from our travels and hitched a lift up the hill on Jairo’s tractor to bring us a dozen new-laid eggs. Treasure indeed! Those little brown beauties were just perfect for my ice cream making plans. I know there are lots of healthy yoghurty options for ice cream these days but ’tis the season for comfort food, so I felt the need for a rich, custardy creamy base, deepest yellow from golden yolks  – one swirled through with cooked peaches from the freezer, another spiced with cinnamon and ginger (to be shamelessly melted over piping hot mince pies).

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Starting my new crochet project, the ‘Moroccan Spice Mix’ blanket: another gift blanket, but my own colour choices and designs this time so quite a challenge. Actually, quite a pleasure, too.

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Working in the garden. It’s amazing how quickly the patch goes to look empty at this time of year . . . but not for long. After a second season of cultivation and feeding, the soil is deep, rich and wonderfully friable so I’ve had a happy time lightly forking and raking then planting early peas and broad beans for a spring harvest.

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I’ve also planted a couple of large glazed pots with tulips, an early birthday gift from Mum and Dad. A December birthday can be very gloomy weatherwise but it’s always a pleasure to have such gorgeous colours to look forward to in the spring.

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Making mincemeat. I’d happily dispense with most of Christmas but never, ever mince pies. I love the cosy kitchen time spent making them and the seriously decadent business of eating them. A homemade mince pie of buttery crisp pastry bursting with soft, spiced fruity gorgeousness is a thing of utter beauty – and far surpasses anything bought, no matter how many times ‘luxury’ appears on the packet. Likewise, homemade mincemeat is a world away from the shop bought stuff, which is why I have always made my own and would encourage others to have a go. It’s child’s play and takes a matter of minutes: honestly, if you can chop an apple and grate a lemon, you can make mincemeat.

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve used Delia Smith’s recipe  adding my own adaptations as suits the occasion. For instance, I much prefer raisins to currants so I change the fruit ratios to reflect that; for years I’ve experimented with different varieties of apples from the garden but this year I’m using our pears; as for nuts, forget almonds – for us, it’s homegrown walnuts all the way. The beauty of Delia’s recipe (I think, anyway) is that the slow heating in a cool oven to prevent the apple fermenting means the suet melts and coats everything instead of sitting like nasty little fatty white maggots which I have always found unappetising. I never bother adding any brandy, either: this is not because I have anything against festive tipple, but I like my mincemeat to be child-friendly and also I think it’s a shame to overpower those lovely spicy, citrussy flavours with strong alcohol. I suppose the brandy would help as a preservative but no worries there – this stuff does not last long enough in our house to go off! In a week’s time we’ll be having a return walking match with Sam and Adrienne here, so I reckon a mince pie stop at the top of our mountain sounds like a grand plan.

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Breathing in the scent of the first jasmine flowers blooming by the door. Gorgeous.

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There are so many other things I could add: the song of a chiffchaff in the garden, the sweet smell of woodsmoke and luxurious warmth from our new stove, evenings spent cooking delicious meals together, the brilliance of a sunset, good news from a friend . . . give me experience over stuff any day. As for Cyber Monday? Don’t think I’ll bother, if that’s alright.

 

The gift of giving

Isn’t it a wonderful thing to receive gifts from other people? I particularly love it when a gift is unexpected and homemade, and in the same vein, I love to make and give bits and pieces to other people. Homemade gifts are such beautiful things that it’s a shame we so often shy away from the idea of them. I think there are three main reasons for this.

1. Time (or at least, a lack of it). In lives that are so full of busyness and rushing around, it’s often hard to find the time, energy and enthusiasm to make something. So much easier to go to a shop or online and buy something . . . but perhaps it’s exactly because we are so busy that we should try and find a little time out for ourselves do something for others? There is much pleasure in making, after all.

2. Perfection. Modern consumerist society offers us a dizzying amount of products to buy, many of them very beautiful , most of them standardised. If we buy something that seems less than perfect, we return it as faulty.  Homemade gifts are beautiful precisely because they may not be perfect. They are not the same as every other one coming out of a factory or workshop: they are unique, and their little quirks and imperfections are what make them so special.

3. Money. How often do we set out to buy a gift with a fairly precise cost in mind? It’s almost like gifts have to say, ‘Look, I’ve spent this much on you’ because the amount of money spent reflects our feelings for someone or the level of esteem in which we hold them. The problem with that approach is that it confuses price with value: they are not the same thing. How can you put a price on the thought, effort, care and love someone puts into a homemade gift for someone else? The cost may be a few pennies, the value is priceless.

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So, this is a gentle plea for giving simple gifts that are homemade with love, maybe not always (life after all tends to get in the way of the best laid plans) but at least some of the time. I believe that everyone has creative talents – even if they insist otherwise! – and there is much pleasure in using them to make lovely things; all you need is a little imagination and the courage to give it a go. You don’t need to have the original idea, either; there is nothing wrong with borrowing other people’s ideas – see my wedding blanket gift below. I tend to veer towards textile-based gifts because that’s what I love to make but in the past I’ve done many different things. I’ve baked and decorated cakes and biscuits or made boxes of chocolates and jars of special preserves. I’ve created hand-tied posies from garden flowers and filled boxes and baskets with fresh, homegrown produce. I’ve tried my hand at new things: making herbal handcreams, plaited corn dollies and colourful origami Japanese cranes. I’ve even stepped far outside my comfort zone to make a wooden birdbox, complete with a blue tit painted on the front. As I’d be hard pushed to say which of my ‘skills’ sets are the more dire – drawing or carpentry – you will appreciate just what a labour of love that one was! However, I had a lot of fun and learnt some new things . . . and I understand the birds are using it, which is a relief.

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Homemade gifts don’t have to be ‘things’, either. Sarah’s father-in-law writes humorous poems to read out at family occasions. What a wonderful way of bringing everyone together in love, laughter and celebration! One of the most incredible and touching gifts I have ever been given was a song written and performed by a very talented young lady I had the pleasure of teaching. It couldn’t be wrapped and labelled, it isn’t sitting on a shelf gathering dust . . . but the poignant beauty of that haunting melody – and the creativity and heart that went into it – will stay with me for ever.

Try ‘experience’ over ‘stuff’, too. Sometimes, just spending a little time with others – rather than money –  is the greatest gift we can give. Nothing complicated, perhaps a walk somewhere, a simple picnic, a chat over coffee . . . shared moments with a focus on being together and enjoying each other’s company. I still smile at the memory of a surprise moonlit walk to the top of a hill, a flask of real hot chocolate and apple muffins still warm from the oven shared beneath the stars. You can’t buy that from a shop.

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By way of example of a homemade gift, here is my latest creation. When Sam and Adrienne announced their engagement last August, I knew immediately that I wanted to make them a special gift to mark the wonderful occasion of their wedding. Making things for weddings has been a bit of a habit of mine in recent years and it’s one I love; as I have been in full crochet mode this year, a beautiful blanket seemed like just the thing.  No question about which design, it had to be the Moorland blanket from Lucy’s Attic 24 website. Sam and Adrienne, like myself, are both great fans of moorland; no surprise really, it’s the landscape in which they grew up, albeit the hill country of south Shropshire and mid-Wales rather than the Yorkshire Dales. Sam had popped the question in a whimberry patch, August sees our house here surrounded by swathes of purple heather and I knew that Adrienne had seen and loved the blanket design so it seemed very apt. Also – and I do have to confess this – on a very selfish note – I desperately wanted to work that design but couldn’t justify making another blanket for us . . . so this way I would have all the pleasure, and hopefully a meaningful gift at the end of it.

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This was no stroll in the park, I have to say. Those first few rows were horrendously tricky; for some reason, it took a long while for my brain to assimilate the stitch orders and my eye to understand where I was in the pattern. However, eventually it all clicked and I started to revel in the rhythm of those waves. This is such a clever pattern.  The way those colours weave and meld into one another is quite magical, it’s like making sweeps of watercolours across a sheet of cartridge paper. I love the subtlety of the colour combinations, too, and it was fascinating to see the colours of a moorland landscape develop. In fact, working my way up the blanket felt like a wonderful walk. First, the peaty browns and earthy greens brought to mind the short tough grasses, bright mosses and deep black boggy puddles so typical of the landscape. Next, I meandered happily through swathes of purple heather, climbing towards the hilltops and the evocative call of curlews; here there would be whimberries, too! Finally, the beautiful blues of a late summer sky. I could imagine soft clouds scudding past and skylarks trilling up high.

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For me, the greatest part of making this gift has been the time spent thinking about the recipients – two very precious young people with a wonderful shared life ahead of them – which means that my love and hopes for them have literally been worked into every stitch. That’s what makes homemade gifts so special.

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I probably should apologise for the sheep, mind you (moorland just isn’t moorland without sheep in my book) as there is more than a hint of dog about that face, don’t you think? Still, if I wanted a perfect crocheted sheep-looking sheep I could buy one ready-made from a shop . . . but where’s the fun in that? 🙂

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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