If music be the food of love

The photos in this post come from two recent walks, one in the wild mountains of Ponga Natural Park and the other to the beautiful Cascada del Cioyo.

When we last lived in Wales, our neighbour Alwenna walked the lanes every day in all weathers and, regardless of whether she was striding out purposefully or gently meandering along, we always knew where she was because as she walked, she sang. Not some quiet, self-conscious humming to herself, but a full-blown belting out of tunes at the top of her (very tuneful) voice which never failed to make me smile. It was a wonderful outpouring of happiness and the sheer joy of being alive and it has floated back into my memory this week as I have been rediscovering the delights of playing a recorder.

Now I promise I am not going to become a recorder bore; far from it, I need to put time and effort into practising rather than writing about it. However, I wanted to dedicate a post to it because I think what I’m doing sits so well with my approach to and belief in a simple life. I think it’s vitally important ~ as well as massively rewarding ~ to pursue new interests and learn fresh skills and knowledge throughout life; it’s a positive, optimistic and meaningful thing and in this day and age, when we are all too aware of the necessity of keeping our brains busy, stimulated and healthy then anything that forces us to build new neural pathways is surely a worthwhile activity.

When it comes to taking up new interests or trying different things, these days we are blessed with an almost overwhelming choice but I would like to fly the flag here for the benefits of revisiting an old pastime rather than always feeling the need to jump in at the deep end of something bright and shiny. It’s a well-known fact that in our modern western society, countless attics, sheds and garages heave with the evidence of abandoned hobbies, of kit and equipment bought in the first flush of excitement and quickly dumped as the novelty wears off, or the activity becomes too costly in terms of money, time or effort. One of the great plus points of blowing the dust off an old interest is that you know, to some degree at least, what to expect.

Like many children of my generation, my first foray into the world of making music was being taught the rudiments of recorder playing by school staff generous enough to spend their lunch break with a group of excruciating little squeakers! From there my love of music grew through singing and a (mercifully) short flirtation with the violin before settling on the guitar as my ‘thing.’ I was lucky enough to have a few terms of lessons but I’ve never really developed my skills much beyond a basic level so that is something I’m determined to put right. I have a very beautiful steel-stringed acoustic guitar which I am guilty of neglecting but my plan is to right that wrong . . . by learning to play the recorder again (obviously 🙂 ).

So why not just go straight to my guitar? Well, part of the problem is I have spent so many years using guitar tab and the same old strumming and picking patterns that I have forgotten about the complexities of reading music from a manuscript and all the associated symbolism and language that goes with it; I feel the need to sharpen those skills first by really getting back to basics in the sure knowledge that it will then inspire me to work on improving my guitar playing, too. To that end, I am approaching the recorder with total humility like a complete beginner, paying much attention to things like posture, breath and articulation ~ the sorts of niceties I was happy to ignore as a child. I’m taking time to work carefully through the excellent and very human video tutorials by the hugely talented Sarah Jeffery of Team Recorder and making sure that I practise at least once a day, over and over until I feel I’ve really cracked it.

That said, there are many benefits to being an adult ‘re-learner.’ For a start, I can read notation on a stave without any trouble so I don’t have to learn that from scratch. Of the 27 notes possible on my recorder (according to the fingering chart) I can already play 21 so I am choosing pieces of music which will allow me to add one new note at a time ~ although I sincerely doubt I will ever be able to hit the highest ones. At least I don’t have to drive myself or anyone else mad with constant repeats of ‘Three Blind Mice!’ Having spent several decades listening to and enjoying a wide variety of music and having been lucky enough to experience a wealth of live performances in many styles, I have a secure understanding that music is based on a number of elements and is not just a smattering of notes tooted out at the same speed and volume.

As an adult, I also now have far more discipline to apply myself to getting things right. Something I realise very clearly is that at least 95% of the music I’ve ever made has been by ear; let me hear someone sing or play a phrase and I can copy it fairly accurately but give me a piece to sight read and I’m in deep doo-doo because in all honesty, I’ve been winging it forever. I’m not sure whether I was too fidgety, distracted or idle (possibly all three?) but I have never, ever had a proper understanding of note value, finding far more gratification in the names of things like minim or demisemiquaver than in actually doing the maths in each bar of music. Well, that has to stop and sorting it all out in my head feels like some pretty effective brain gym, that’s for sure! What is wonderful is that there are many online sites where I can download free tunes but also play along with an accompaniment and listen to someone else play, so I can have a crack at it on my own first then check against the correct model. Progress is slow . . . but at least it is progress.

Something I am really enjoying is brushing up on all those wonderful terms that add such important information to a piece of music: accelerando, rallentando, glissando, crescendo, fortissimo . . . rolling off my tongue in those delightfully dramatic Italian words. Being me, I’m having a lot of fun making connections with Spanish so andante obviously shares the same root as andar (to walk) and allegro is sister to one of my favourite Spanish words, alegría (joy).

Meanwhile, back to the actual playing and as I enjoy a wide range of different types and styles of music, I’m having fun dipping in and out of all sorts of bits and pieces: English and Welsh folk, baroque, ragtime, blues, film themes . . . but without doubt, the pieces I’m enjoying the most at the moment are Irish jigs. They are fast and furious and I’m nowhere near up to speed and still croaking out the high notes like a strangled Clanger but there is something just so energetic and vibrant and downright joyful about traditional music that brings people together and makes them want to dance.

I’ve made a start on building a repertoire of Celtic tunes, not just with a lively toe-tapping ceilidh vibe but those more haunting and mournful melodies, too. For me, this is a style of music that is truly evocative of bleak windswept landscapes under open skies, the aching green of woodland glades, the rocky strongholds of eagle-haunted mountain tops or the booming timpani of waves along a wild coastline. Northern Spain has much in common with Brittany and the Celtic lands of the British Isles ~ and not just the fact that it rains a lot! There is a strong sense of shared history (Castro de Coaña, a Celtic settlement a short trip from home, is a fascinating place to visit) and common culture in terms of art work, traditions, folklore and of course, music. Indeed, I am practising a piece of traditional Asturian flute music called ‘Ancestros’ which could quite easily have hailed from any of those other countries, so similar is it in style and sweet, sad melody.

I love the idea of the spirit of landscape and nature being captured and reflected in music. Let’s face it, nature itself bursts with its own wild tunes and I like nothing better than to close my eyes and listen: sitting by the Cascada del Cioyo, my ears feasted on the pulsating rhythm and crashing of white water against rock, the deep moody notes of the plunge pool, the staccato of a wren underpinning the mellifluous legato of blackcap, and the breeze dripping notes like liquid silver through the leaves.

It was all there and I couldn’t hope to better it; not that I want to, but I do love the idea of taking my recorder into the woods and simply playing from the heart for pure pleasure. It might seem a complete contradiction to the disciplined study I’m making myself do, but I think life should be a balance. After all, music has been an oral tradition for most of its existence and sitting under the leafy sunlit canopies surrounded by the buzz of life, I think I should be allowed to dispense with sheet music and metronomes just for a while. I’ve learned how to mute my recorder, too, so I can sit and ‘feel’ what I’m playing without disturbing the peace of all those I share this precious space with.

This idea brings to mind the concept of awen, a very lovely Welsh word (Cornish and Breton, too, I believe) which has no precise English correspondence but roughly translates as ‘flowing inspiration.’ It’s much invoked by those who practise modern Druidry but I believe it can be used by anyone and applied to anyone as a beautiful expression of the spark that ignites the energy and enthusiasm of a creative activity. Although traditionally referring to poetry, I think it’s completely appropriate to recognise that flow of inspiration in many other areas, tangible and abstract ~ music, art, dance, handicrafts of all kinds, cookery, gardening, architecture, scientific enquiry, mathematical reasoning, building relationships . . . in short, any activity that brings head, heart and hands together in a vibrant celebration of creativity.

It’s in everyone, and I think there is something very liberating and exhilarating at being allowed and encouraged to express it; it doesn’t matter if you’re not very good at something (trust me, I am never going to be a talented musician) because that’s not what this is about. How often do we stop ourselves from trying something new or different or wacky because we lack confidence or have doubts or are worried . . . about what? That we’re going to fail or be judged or ridiculed? Well, who cares? In lives that can be so overstuffed with busyness and stress and in what are currently very strange and troubled times, I believe more than ever there’s a need to let our hair down, go for it and above all, have fun. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve ended up in fits of laughter with my recorder over the last week. Regret about chances not taken and things not done must be one of the saddest of all human emotions so, go on ~ blow the cobwebs off that old musical instrument, paintbox, set of tools, tennis racquet or whatever, pick up a pen or a needle or a lump of clay, take a lesson in dancing salsa or metalwork or Japanese or anything that appeals to you. Do it. Smile, laugh, enjoy. What greater celebration of the gift of life can there be? 🙂

E-value-ation

You need to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was.

Irish proverb
(Com)passion flower

If someone were to ask us what we miss most about the UK ~ apart from obvious things like spending more time with loved ones ~ then I think the answer we would both give is a good library. We are avid readers and although obviously there are good libraries locally, our Spanish is not fluent enough to allow us to enjoy books with the same ease we can in English. One of our top priorities on UK road trips is to stock up on several months’ worth of reading material from charity shops, which we look after, enjoy and return to the same shops for resale on the next trip. It works a treat . . . but obviously this year we have come a bit unstuck and with no chance of a trip until October at the earliest, we are having to make do.

Simplicity

In a way, I think it’s easier for me. For starters, I can always pick up a bit of knitting instead so I don’t get through books as quickly as Roger; I’m also more inclined than he is to read books again, many times over in some cases, and I also love non-fiction books so I’m quite happy to work my way through favourite well-thumbed tomes on all sorts of subjects ~ even recipe books. Last year, we were given the generous gift of a Kindle and although being the dinosaur I am, I still prefer a paper book, it has been a really useful tool in extending our reading repertoire. There are thousands of free e-books available to download and I’ve found that it’s worth spending time trawling through the mass of titles in order to unearth some real treasures. When I was researching soap-making, I found several really useful books and now I’m pottering my way through an Open University short course in intermediate Spanish and plodding at (nearly dead) snail’s pace through a Spanish novel. It’s fun to dip into ‘subcategories’ I wouldn’t normally bother with: to that end I’m currently reading a fascinating book about ecology (a topic that has always interested me but which I’ve never really studied properly) and this is precisely how I ended up finding Be Who You Came To Be by Estelle Gillingham. Listed under ‘Self-help and Counselling’ it is most definitely not the kind of book I would usually go for but it certainly gave me a few things to think about.

Nature

Estelle Gillingham is a research chemist turned forensic healer and her book is an intricate weaving of the esoteric, Eastern philosophy, scientific research and quantum physics (and there’s a subject to set the old grey matter jingling, if ever there was one!). If I’m honest, much of the book didn’t resonate greatly with me but I loved the section about ‘values’ and the idea that we should take time to identify our personal core values, rather than those that may have come from our ancestry, upbringing, culture, education, politics, religion or whoever and whatever else may have influenced us during our lives; not that (in my humble opinion) there may be anything inherently wrong with learned values, it’s just that they don’t necessarily tell the whole story of us as individuals and unique beings. In short, it’s finding the values that truly make us us, the ones by which we should be measuring our lives and actions or, as the Irish proverb has it, doing our own growing.

Compassion

The first exercise was to choose a set of fifteen values from a list of almost 420, ranged alphabetically from abundance to zeal, then reduce those to ten and ultimately to five or six. Well, talk about falling at the first hurdle. Fifteen? Try at least forty-five! I found it so difficult to whittle them down that I ended up adopting my own approach of gathering words together in bundles and then reflecting carefully on which one would best serve as a beacon for the lot. So, for instance, in a week that saw us celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary and Sam and Adrienne’s second, along with the seventh birthday of our eldest grandchild Ben, you would expect love, marriage, partnership and family to be pretty high on the list . . . but there goes four of my five or six straight away! For these and the values I had grouped with them, I decided compassion ~ literally ‘suffering with’ ~ was the absolute core.

Compassion

Affection, care, commitment, courtesy, empathy, ethics, fairness, family, fidelity, friendship, kindness, love, loyalty, marriage, nurture, patience, partnership, thoughtfulness, trust.

Compassion

At this point, I’d like to say I never intended for this to become a blog post; I simply opted to use WordPress editor as a useful place to gather my thoughts, especially as the next task was to find pictures to represent my chosen values and, being an incurable photoholic, my media library seemed the obvious place to go. The fact that it morphed into a post that feels quite different for me came as a bit of a surprise and I understand if readers decide it’s not for them. I’m just very grateful that anyone ever takes precious time out of their day to read my ramblings! For those who are brave or curious enough to continue, here is the rest of my list:

Simplicity

Balance, calmness, comfort, contentment, freedom, frugality, happiness, honesty, humility, integrity, practicality, pragmatism, realism, relaxation, rest, tranquility.

Simplicity

Gratitude

Appreciation, celebration, cheerfulness, generosity, giving, joy, optimism, peace, thankfulness, warmth.

Gratitude

Nature

Conservation, diversity, environmentalism, outdoors, respect, silence, solitude, stillness.

Nature

Wonder

Adventure, amazement, attentiveness, awareness, awe, curiosity, delight, discovery, excitement, exploration, fascination, inquisitiveness, learning, reflection, understanding.

Wonder

Creativity

Adaptability, challenge, communication, enjoyment, expressiveness, flexibility, imagination, inspiration, language, resourcefulness, teaching.

Creativity

Well, not quite the rest because at this point I ran out of road having stretched to six core values but I still had another group that I really didn’t want to abandon. What to do? In the end, I decided I would just have to break the ‘rules’ and include it anyway as a seventh value; after all, there’s a good reason that I haven’t listed obedience anywhere! 🙂

Vitality

Activity, agility, change, enthusiasm, fitness, fun, growth, health, liveliness, playfulness, resilience, spontaneity, surprise.

Vitality

Obviously, there is a lot of potential cross-over here: nature looks a bit on the thin side but I could add much of what’s in the other lists to that section, too. In fact, it would be very easy to get carried away with words flying left, right and centre. I did add a few ideas of my own such as nurture, celebration and language, all of which are important aspects of my life, but otherwise I tried to sort the values into the category which I felt had the overall ‘best fit.’

So what exactly is the point of all this? There are people who have hailed Be Who You Came To Be as incredibly life-changing and others who dismiss it as a load of New Age woo woo; I suppose I fall somewhere between, but the idea of reflecting on my core values and looking at how well I apply them to my everyday life is certainly something I find to be an engaging activity. For example, I’m still feeling really thrilled with my recent indigo dyeing escapade and in fact, I can see all seven core values running through the natural dyeing activities I’ve been messing with so far. Some might seem more obvious than others but elements of them all are most definitely there. This had me thinking that maybe what I should be focusing on are those things I don’t enjoy quite so much in life . . .

Wonder

. . . so how, for example, could I bring more creativity or vitality to a supermarket trip? It’s certainly one to ponder! One of my favourite yoga teachers recommends adopting a yogi squat posture in a shopping queue, partly because it’s so much kinder on the back and legs than standing for any length of time or leaning idly on a trolley, but also because in allowing ourselves to be ‘vulnerable’ to other people’s reactions ~ surprise, bewilderment, amusement, disapproval, frowns, smiles, comments or whatever ~ we become stronger and more comfortable in our own skins and, ultimately, truer to our real selves. Perhaps a bit of yoga at the checkout then? Or maybe I should start humming ‘Hot Stuff’ and see if I can get a bit of a Full Monty thing going? 🙂 I certainly think there’s an argument for more playfulness in the world. When I was teaching, I stuck a sign that read ‘Life must be lived as play’ on my classroom door as a gentle reminder to everyone who entered, whether child or adult, that learning should be fun. It wasn’t something I’d invented, but was written by the philospher Plato in Ancient Greece: how long it takes us to see the truth in ancient wisdom!

Vitality

If nothing else, this happy little exercise seems to have left me with an enormous boost of energy and has prodded me into all sorts of unexpected busyness over the last couple of weeks. I’ve dug out my sewing machine and made a summer nightie from a remnant of cotton fabric, the first dressmaking I’ve done in over seven years. I winged it a bit without using a pattern and in the process, I learnt the very clever ‘hotdog’ technique for lining a bodice . . . which had the ridiculous knock-on effect of me humming Led Zeppelin’s ‘Hot Dog’ for several days afterwards.

Creativity

If you’re not familiar with the song, it’s the mosy un-Zepplike track imaginable (sort of rock meets country and western meets ragtime) which for years has raised a collective groan from Roger and our sprogs because it brings me out in an uncontrollable frenzy of embarrassing dance moves every time I hear it. Well, having read recently about research that has shown how even one minute a day of shaking your tail feathers to music that makes you smile can increase happiness and productivity, I’m having some very happy ‘Hot Dog’ moments and it can only be a matter of time before I break out the B52’s ‘Love Shack.’ 🙂 🙂 🙂

Gratitude

I’m having a short break from running but I’ve taken to striding out on walks in all weathers, particularly into the woods, to really observe, study and learn more about the flora and fauna around me. I’ve started tackling the chaos that is our undereaves storage, trying to bring a sense of order to what has become an easy ‘dumping’ ground. I’ve ordered seeds for indigo, woad, dyer’s chamomile, weld and madder so that I can create a dyer’s border in the garden, something I’ve been threatening to do for almost ten years now. I’ve bought a beautiful yellow ‘eco’ descant recorder (made from plant-based materials) with the intention of going right back to basics and rediscovering my love of making music. I’m not claiming to have ‘found myself’ ~ no thanks, that would be far too scary! ~ but I’m having a lot of fun . . . and that is something I truly value in my life. 🙂

Practising for the supermarket . . .

Summer’s end

Summer ends, and Autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night.’ Hals Borland

They say that change is the only constant in life and goodness me, have we been dealing with it over the last couple of days! I love the circle of the year, the way seasons slide from one to another bringing all their associated joy and beauty (and chaos and woe at times, too) but I do prefer the change to be gradual, to give me time to adjust gently.

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We are so lucky here that summer stretches lazily away into the autumn months. Was it only last weekend we were paddling in the sea off Portugal? Was it only two evenings ago we were sitting outside in the evening sunshine in shorts and sandals, enjoying the light and warmth so much we didn’t want to go inside and make dinner? What a transformation, then, to wake to something so different yesterday: the valley hung with sullen clouds and threaded with mist, the garden soaked in rain.

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There was the true smell of autumn in the air – that heady, spicy, leafy scent – and a crisp freshness to the air that had me pulling on long-redundant layers. I love sunshine, the light and warmth and colour it bestows on everything, the comfort it brings to life, but I have to admit there is something special about the garden after rain. Everything looks different in a changed light, there is a new slant to the old and familiar – leaves hung with diamond raindrops and petals washed to translucence.

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The landscape, too, changes its coat as it shrugs off those bright blues and greens for something more muted. I have to confess, there is a certain delight in seeing smoke curling from the chimney once again and catching the sweet scent of wood smoke on the rain-spangled air.

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Nature it seemed had only just started with us, though: cue a night of thunderstorms and violent hail showers that left the garden looking ragged and the mountaintops white over in the sluggish morning light. From summer to winter in one fell swoop? It certainly felt that way!

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Still, life is not all summer and nature and the season are simply reminding us there is a balance in all things. It would be easy to feel a shiver of melancholy blowing with the chilly wind but this change brings good things into our lives, too. There is a shift in our daily tasks, the most obvious one being keeping the log bucket filled. Our woodstove (aka The Beast) is back in business and it has a pretty hearty appetite; this is what all those days spent hauling, chopping and stacking logs have been in aid of. We have to switch our cooking activities to the other end of the room as here are hob and oven ready primed for action; the kettle sings away merrily, giving us a plentiful supply of hot water for drinks and washing up. It’s a strange thing, but our fuel bills drop drastically in the cooler months! What lovelier way to pass a miserably wet afternoon than making peach marmalade with our very last bag of frozen fruit, the sweet, citrussy smell of summer remembered wafting through the house on a wave of toasty warmth?

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Actually, this first dose of cabin fever sent Roger into a wonderful kitchen overdrive. Just to add to the tantalising smell of peaches and lemons, two gorgeously crusty sourdough loaves emerged from the oven. We were given a sourdough starter in July by Sam and Adrienne; it is fondly know as The Yeasty Beastie and lives happily in the fridge until feeding time ahead of a baking session. We honestly couldn’t imagine making bread any other way now. On a serious cooking roll, Chef then set himself the challenge of doing something with figs. What to do with a glut of fresh figs has become a bit of an annual conundrum for us; I love them straight from the tree or with yogurt and walnuts for breakfast or chopped into a salad of bitter leaves. Fig recipes don’t tend to be very inspiring and often exude a sense of desperation. What do you do with them? (I appreciate we could dry them but I have to confess that dried figs are one of those foods I really don’t like, there’s something about the seeds that literally puts my teeth on edge.) Well, how about a dark chocolate torte with figs poached in Calvados? Mmm, now you’re talking! Gosh, we hardly ever have puddings but this one was to die for.

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More comfort food required: steak and kidney casserole (boosted with borlotti beans), creamy mash, spiced roasted squash and cheesy leeks. Oh my word. There’s another change, though; when was the last time fetching veg from the garden required wellies and a garden fork to rummage about in the mud? Well worth it, I’d say.

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It was a bit of a shock to be back in long trousers and socks . . . but a timely reminder that I have a pair of socks to finish knitting and there should be time to get the second one done before we leave if I get my skates on.

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Something I have finished, though, is my chunky woolly stuff bag and I’m so thrilled with it. It was just the right thing to curl up with and potter away at in front of the stove while the rain battered against the windows. I have loved every minute of this project, it has been a dream working with chunky yarn and I’m delighted with the zippy cheerfulness of those colour stripes.

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Even better, there is enough yarn left for another bag project; I’ve wound it into balls and they’re already snuggled in there, packed for the journey along with some sock yarn. My new mittens are in there, too, and there’s room for a hat, a book, my specs . . . everything I will need on the boat and more. Forget the Bag of Doom: here’s to the Bag of Room.

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It will be a long time now before I write another post; we have many thousands of miles to travel in failing light and dubious weather, and much work to be do in the coming weeks. There will be the pleasure of catching up with friends and family, too, and enjoying good food and happy moments together. In the meantime, autumn will walk on here in our absence and things will have changed once again by the time we return . . . but that’s what makes life interesting, isn’t it? 🙂

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Wandering and wondering

We go shopping as infrequently as possible; it’s not something either of us ever particularly enjoys but at this time of year I come to detest it as the inexorable Christmas bombardment greets us at the shop door. What is that all about? Christmas is two months away . . . are we the only people left in modern society who are actually still enjoying October? Are we unusual in not wanting to spend at least a sixth of the year focusing on one day in December? Walking into a DIY shop out of bright, warm, Spanish sunshine to be greeted by a forest of plastic Christmas trees, snowflakes and illuminated glitter-sprinkled nativity scenes was just downright weird; who wants to look at Father Christmas wrapped up in all his red, beardy finery when we are still in shorts and sandals? One of the loveliest things about our simple life is the fact that we can practise true mindfulness in the sense of enjoying all the small, special things that are happening in the present rather than waiting for the present (at Christmas or whenever). When Roger went out one evening this week to shut the sheds as it went dark, he came back with a handful of rosebuds he had picked for me; small loving gestures like that – little surprises that are totally unexpected – are more precious to me than anything he could buy and wrap and stick under a tree.

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So, how lovely to escape the Christmas consumerist madness and retreat to our little haven in the mountains once again. There has been so much to celebrate this week, not least the continued gorgeous weather that keeps us wrapped in sunshine and toasty warmth. We have been harvesting figs from both trees – one with white-fleshed fruits, the other pink – in an attempt to beat the blackbirds and blackcaps to them. They are so delicious, sweet and succulent and I love them best of all sun-warmed straight from the tree.

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Although the walnut harvest didn’t look too promising, we’ve been nicely surprised by the amount we have collected so far and there are still plenty left in their green cases on the trees; no problems with the birds there, it’s the wild boar we have to keep at bay!

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Look closely at this walnut tree and you can see there’s rather more than nuts to be picked. Yes, that is a Russian Pink Fairy squash climbing through the branches! I lifted the parent plant a few weeks ago but the stem had sent down roots in several places and this one has just kept on growing and has produced a couple of extra fruits. Madness!

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Having nurtured our little lemon tree through far too many winter storms, how exciting to find a single baby fruit on it. There is another flush of blossom, too, and still plenty of pollinators around to do the business so maybe there will be more fruits to come. In the meantime, I am keeping my eye on this brave little beauty. Picking our own lemons . . . now that’s a rather special treat to look forward to. 🙂

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I know I have said it many times, but wandering around the garden picking bits and pieces for our dinner always brings me a huge amount of pleasure and I feel enormously grateful that we can enjoy such a wealth of fresh, wholesome food every day. Although things like cucumbers and French beans are over, we are still harvesting huge amounts of peppers both outdoors and in the polytunnel, along with aubergines, Florence fennel, carrots, chard, courgettes, several types of kale, cabbage and lettuce. We treated ourselves to the first parsnip and leek this week, we don’t have a big crop of either but they are huge so we can stretch them a long way and they were truly delicious.

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The tunnel will really come into its own now, taking us through the winter with a good variety of salad leaves including red and green mizuna, mustard, rocket, wild rocket and coriander. Oh, the sheer joy of picking the freshest, greenest, zingiest salad bowl of baby leaves this week!

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As spaces open up in the garden, I have been turning the soil to clear it of weeds, preparing to spread a good mulch of manure as an autumn feed. It’s such hard work on the slopes, every forkful has to be thrown uphill to stop it all rolling down the mountainside and where the ground is slippery I tend to do a strange backwards moonwalk in my wellies! It hasn’t been helped by the fact that the moles have had a field day along the bottom of the garden (their furtive tunnelling conveniently hidden in the squash jungle) so the path is falling away; a terrace wall along there is definitely on the to-do list for next year. Little velvet-coated annoyances aside, I love turning the soil like this; it is dark and deep and there is something wonderful about that rich, earthy smell. A good rest over winter to let the worms and weather do their work then all will be set for seedtime once again.

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Autumn is very slow to arrive here, it tiptoes in so quietly and gently that we barely notice it is here. There has been a subtle shift in the light and colours playing across the landscape this week, some gentle hints of golds and browns although everything is still predominantly green.

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The fungi have popped up overnight like – well – mushrooms, marching across the meadow in perfect formation.

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I found theses in the wood; no idea what type they are but they reminded me of drop spindles!

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Between the fungi, there is a wide and wild sweep of autumn crocus with their delicate mauve petals and saffron centres. So beautiful.

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I wandered through the woods to my Contemplation Stool and my favourite leafy glade bathed in golden afternoon sunlight. There weren’t as many signs of autumn as I’d imagined although the chestnut and birch trees caught against the blue sky were doing their bit. I sat for a few moments listening to the birds and reflected on how far from all that plastic Christmas madness the moment was.

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I love this little patch of paradise and the fact that we are both so content to spend most of our time here; it’s nothing for the car to stay parked for a fortnight or more without going anywhere. That said, we enjoy travelling and visiting new places and the mind-broadening stimulation and enrichment that can bring. Now the house renovation is almost done, we have more time to look outwards so a charity race in Vigo last weekend gave us the perfect excuse to pack our running shoes and head off to somewhere different. We travelled down through Galicia into a landscape very different to this one; instead of mountains there were gently rolling hills with large arable farms set amongst great swathes of forest, reminding me very much of parts of France (although the palm trees were a bit of  giveaway!). We stopped at Santiago de Compostela, the final destination for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who follow the network of Jacobean routes across France, Spain and Portugal every year. We live close to the Camino del Norte and were interested to see where the footsore pilgrims we see walking throughout the summer end up. As well as a magnificent cathedral, the city is also home to one of the oldest universities in Europe and many of the historic campus buildings are very beautiful. We wandered through the ancient streets and enjoyed the quiet courtyards full of flowers.

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Every other building seemed to be a hostel or restaurant and little wonder – if I had walked all those miles then food, drink and sleep would definitely be top of my list! We passed through an archway where a busker was squeezing a jaunty tune out of traditional bagpipes and emerged into the sunlit Praza do Obradoiro in front of the cathedral. It is certainly a spectacular building but it was the pilgrims who caught my eye and attention: people from all over the world drawn to this place that to them is so very special. There were groups laughing and chatting, already sharing stories and memories; couples and individuals wandered around the square drinking in the sights and sounds or simply sat in quiet contemplation; others lay with heads cushioned on their backpacks, faces turned to the sun. Someone played a guitar. I watched a group of ladies well into their seventies clinging to one another as they took the final steps into the square, melting into tears and laughter. How far had they walked to get there, I wondered? What obstacles had they overcome, what memories would they treasure? There is a lively buzz to Santiago but in that square I felt so much more, a powerful wave of human emotions – joy, exhilaration, exhaustion, achievement, wonder, relief, completeness. Every one of those people had set themselves a huge personal challenge and I suspected that the journey had changed them in a profound way. I don’t share the pilgrims’ faith and I have no desire to follow the Camino myself but I felt very touched by being a part of their journey’s end: I salute every single one of them.

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From Santiago we headed south to Vigo. To be fair to the place, our hotel was at the not-so-pretty end (close to the race start) and we didn’t see the historic bits so I don’t want to sound too negative but honestly, the traffic was beyond crazy. Roger decided it was the worst place he had ever driven through in his life (which is saying something) and he ended up using satnav for the first time ever (which is really saying something). Our hotel was comfy and the food was great but we are not naturally city people and were happy to head out of the chaos and explore further afield. We followed our noses down the coast road south with no precise plan. I love wandering about like that, just doing our own thing off the beaten track; we have always found the prettiest and best of places more by accident than design.

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We turned inland and wound our way through miles of vineyards, the vines clambering high over supports and starting to flaunt their autumn fire. A bridge carried us across the Minho river and into Portugal, where we decided to carry on down the coast. Well, why not?  We loved the pretty cobbled seaside town of Caminha where the wild Atlantic waves crashed against rocks that looked like the remnants of an ancient lava flow.

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We wandered barefoot along a wide expanse of beach, the silver sand sparkling with silica stars. Everything was so blue, it was truly beautiful and delightfully hot!

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Onwards to Viana do Castelo where we climbed up to the Santuário de Santa Luzia, an iconic mountaintop church, to enjoy the spectacular views down to the city and the coast beyond. We even ended up being part of a wedding celebration there which brought an added and unexpected moment to our day!

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On Sunday morning we both ran in the Vigo Contra el Cáncer race and what an event it was with the best part of 5 000 people taking part in a 10k run and 5k walk / run. The streets were turned into a tidal wave of pink as people from all walks of life turned out to support the local charity. Like Santiago, the atmosphere tingled with emotion, many walkers and runners sporting photos of loved ones on their t-shirts. I have run in a couple of Race For Life events but this was on a totally different scale and it felt good to be part of such an incredible thing and to give something back to this lovely country that has made us so welcome.

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Home once more and now we have turned our thoughts to our next journey, the long trek north through France to the UK next week. Oh my goodness, I think we are going to find it a little chilly and it does feel strange digging out long trousers and warm jumpers while I’m still pootling about in shorts and sockless crocs! On the bright side, I might just get to try out my new mittens, all finished and ready to go. I so enjoyed this little project, creating something from nothing; now I’m pondering the other skein of purple Merino waiting in the wings – some snuggly slipper socks, perhaps?

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I’m still very much in creative energy mode so I’ve decided to capitalise by launching into something I’ve been thinking about making for several years: a designated bag for carrying my woolly projects when we go a-travelling. At home, I keep everything close to hand in a couple of wicker baskets but they aren’t practical for packing or lugging about on a plane or ferry. I usually end up stuffing a bit of sock knitting into the top of  a rucksack or – heaven forbid – my (hand)Bag of Doom, which is far from perfect. I’ve tumbled vague ideas around my mind about spinning a heap of chunky yarn, dyeing it in a range of colours then knitting a tapestry-style tote bag . . . but it hasn’t happened; hardly surprising when you consider it has taken me over six months to spin 100g of fleece this year. (It’s finished and skeined but hasn’t made it to the dyepot yet; can’t rush these things.) In fact I could probably walk every route of the Camino in the time it would take to accomplish. So, at the risk of taking an easy way out, I’ve bought commercial yarn and opted for crochet instead.

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Not surprisingly, Attic 24 gave me the exact starting point I was looking for with Lucy’s Jolly Chunky Bag It’s possible to buy a kit but I wasn’t over fussed on the colour combinations (I used ‘Lipstick’ and ‘Fondant’ last year and I’m not a fan) so chose a different palette of colours for the yarn and buttons that are far more ‘me.’ I’ve decided to make the bag bigger than the stated pattern, hopefully roomy enough to cart blanket projects round in and I’ve also bought a couple of magnetic clasps as I think being able to close the bag is a good idea. This is the first time I’ve used chunky yarn in a crochet project and it whizzes up like a dream; in no time at all, the circular base was done . . .

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. . . and as I work round and round the sides, it’s starting to look more like a bag every minute. I am enjoying this activity so much, it’s the perfect simple, therapeutic wool messing for enjoying outside in the evening sunshine and with any luck will be finished in time to stuff with travel projects next week. Well, if I’m going to be a bag lady I might as well do it in style! 🙂

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The wisdom of work

Work (noun): activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result.

“For human beings, a life of such simplicity would be possible if one worked to produce directly his daily necessities. In such a life, work is not work as people generally think of it, but simply doing what needs to be done.” ― Masanobu Fukuoka,  The One Straw Revolution

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Today it is the Fiesta Nacional de España, a national public holiday which for most people means a day off work or school to spend relaxing with their families. We have planned the treat of a two-course meal  for ourselves this evening – crab salad followed by mackerel barbecued over branches of bay –  to celebrate not only the delights of local fresh seafood and beautiful weather but a week of ‘getting things done.’

We have made huge strides forward on the house renovation front this week. I hardly dare believe it, but after two and a half years, the end is in sight; true, it might be the faintest tantalising glimpse in the distance, but it’s there nonetheless. The roof windows are finally being fitted upstairs and the house is now flooded with brilliant natural light; the bathroom is almost finished, just the beautiful Moroccan-style floor tiles to go down; plans have been drawn up and materials bought for the entrance porch makeover. We are in danger of having a proper house at last!

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The buzz of activity has found me thinking about the nature of work and how it relates to the way of life we have chosen to adopt. I tried to come up with my own definition and was pleased that it almost matched the dictionary one above. The important point for me is that there is no mention of money, status, pressure or stress – words which seem to have become synonymous with the idea of working in modern society. I love the idea of effort, though; human bodies are designed to move, human minds are made to be stretched and the feeling of achievement from those activities should be one that makes us glow with happiness and pride. A job well done indeed! I haven’t worked professionally since April 2016 and much as I loved the satisfaction and pleasure of time spent in the classroom with children and being part of a great team of colleagues, I haven’t missed it one jot. I’ve just been too busy to even think about it. The point I’m trying to make is this: people can (and do!) look at our lifestyle and feel that we spend our lives on permanent holiday and don’t work but it’s the very fact that we are both prepared to work – and work very hard – that allows us to live like this in the first place.

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We simply made the decision (brave, foolish, reckless or otherwise) to free ourselves from paid employment in order to spend our time working for ourselves and that has brought an astonishing sense of liberty to our lives. Any targets or deadlines we have are our own. Team meetings and performance management discussions take place in leisurely fashion over a mug of coffee or glass of wine. There is no need for blue sky thinking when we spend so much of our time outdoors beneath it. There is no need for alarm clocks or ironed shirts or a car each when our place of work is right here on our patch of mountainside. Our days of effort don’t put a penny in the bank but they do allow us to spend time together in the evening preparing a meal cooked on wood we have hauled, chopped and stacked ourselves; made from ingredients we have grown and harvested from a garden we created from scratch, and orchards and woodland we manage; prepared in a kitchen we have transformed slowly from an almost inhabitable hovel to a bright, warm, practical and comfortable space. It keeps us busy: we often have long and very tiring days . . . but it’s a wonderfully satisfying and fulfilling way to live. Most importantly, we are very happy!

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Having spent most of the week with either a paintbrush or garden fork in my hand, it’s been good to grab a few moments for woolly things and here, too, I’ve been mulling over the nature of work and creativity. I have always loved what we tend to call ‘handicrafts’, people using their hands and minds to create objects from raw materials (William Morris had a famous line, I know, but I think handmade things are both useful and beautiful at the same time). I’d take a live demonstration of anything from weaving to wood-turning, pottery to patchwork over television or a shopping mall any day. What better form of work could there be than spending time and skill making something in that way? So when it comes to art, I’ve always much preferred things that are simple and folksy – especially when applied to handicrafts and practical objects –  rather than fine art for art’s sake. This is possibly also a reflection of my own prejudice based on the fact that I am hopeless at drawing and painting pictures. Give me pencil and paper and I can spend a long time creating something nobody would ever recognise. It’s no surprise that our machine-savvy grandsons have never asked me to draw them another combine harvester; it would just be too painful for all of us. I’m far happier with something more tactile in my hands: fleece, yarn, textiles, furniture paints, food, plants . . . now there are possibilities! I’ve had a lot of fun making birthday cards for our little grandchildren this year, and although they are simple and somewhat naïve in style, I do hope they can at least tell what the picture is (although I haven’t been brave enough to attempt a tractor yet).

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This sort of practical simplicity is exactly the style I’ve been thinking about whilst planning the embroidery for my mittens. I’ve had a fascinating time researching embroidery, it’s such a huge and varied subject. A friend has loaned me a wonderful book about Asturian history and I was thrilled to find a photo of a traditional headscarf embroidered with a spray of wild flowers . . . so there will be a little touch of Asturias in my mittens, too!

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I’ve discovered all sorts of techniques and materials (waste canvas, soluble interfacing . . .) that I didn’t even know existed. Much as these things would make for a more professional finish, however, I have no intention of using them. For a start, it would be a bit ironic setting out to make something new from recycled wool which has cost me nothing and then spending a small fortune on extras! More than that, though, I want to maintain the integrity of an old handicraft which has been practised for centuries without the benefit of modern materials; yes, the outcome might be a bit wobbly and less than perfect but that for me is the whole point. So, armed with a few coloured pencils and my bag of yarny rune pegs I headed outside to draw (!) up a plan.

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My initial idea was to do something along the lines of Adrienne’s wedding invitation and the Asturian headscarf – a spray of flowers with solid petals worked in satin stitch – but that somehow looked too cramped in the space and shape I had to play with. Next, I tried scattered flowers with separate stems but there was something about its exploded bouquet nature I wasn’t happy with. Time to chew my pencil . . . start doodling . . . play with my pegs. Put the kettle on? Actually, time to go and have a wander round the garden while my ideas sorted themselves out and (as so often happens) nature provided the answer. Looking at the little pops and splashes of colour spread around the garden, I was struck by how many are currently unplanned partnerships of things I’ve planted and things that have planted themselves, creating bright little embroideries of their own.

Verbena bonariensis that has popped up amongst the dahlias.

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A palette of pansies jostled by cheeky self-set calendula.

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The deep purple of clematis ‘Polish Spirit’ (still blooming!) against a fiery carpet of nasturtiums.

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I smiled at the way the morning glory which I sowed along the fence is weaving itself through a forest of self-sown borage . . . and all of a sudden, I could see my embroidery design clearly in my mind’s eye.

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Forget stems and sprays: I liked the idea of a single twisting vine, twining itself around a scattering of simple flowers like the five-petalled borage stars. A tickle in my hind brain told me I’d made woolly lazy daisies relatively recently but I couldn’t for the life of me remember where or why. Thank goodness for blogging! A quick glance back through old posts on my original blog and there they were: the bower bird mobiles I made last year as baby welcome gifts. Just the simple sort of embroidery I’m looking for.

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So design sorted, it was just a case of colour choices and this is where those woolly pegs are such a great tool. I could tell straight away that the darker yellow looked better than the light one against the purple mitt and that the softer bluey-greens were more appropriate than the brighter yellowy ones. Incredible, too, how some of the colours I’d rather fancied for flowers (like turquoise) looked completely wrong.

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Inspired by the borage, I opted for five different shades of blue for my lazy daisies, moving from darkest to lightest up the mitten. The embroidery was such a lovely thing to do, it was incredible watching the dense purple knitted fabric gradually becoming something altogether different and stitching away in the softness of a warm afternoon with a mug of my favourite Assam was soooooo therapeutic. One mitten finished and seamed, now for the second one . . .

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I’ve also found a little bit of time for knitting this week; with my list of birthday socks done and dusted, I started on a new pair for myself. This is Drops Fabel yarn in ‘Guacamole’ – wow, I love those zingy colours!

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Unlike birthday gift socks which require much love and attention, I am able to knit socks like these for myself on autopilot, so it doesn’t take long for my thoughts to wander. I found myself wondering what our newly-renovated home must have been like when originally built in the 1800s. A squat rectangular stone dwelling raised over a barn and under a tiled roof. No electricity. No running water. No bathroom. An open hearth and bread oven. I wouldn’t dream of romanticising it, life must have been pretty tough; how blessed we are that we can be a part of Casa Victorio’s history in a more comfortable style. Still, surely there were womenfolk who spent spare moments with fingers flying over needles to knit the lambswool socks worn inside madreñas, traditional Asturian wooden clogs? (Our neighbours today simply slide carpet slippers into their clogs but we have a friend who wears his with old-style thick woolly socks). For those ladies, such activity was probably considered work whereas for me it’s really a hobby, something I choose to do for pleasure; nonetheless, I love that idea of an old handicraft being passed down and practised like a golden thread of tradition woven through the tapestry of years. Will socks be knitted here a couple of centuries into the future, I wonder? Of course, I’ll never know . . . but it would be lovely to think so, wouldn’t it? 🙂

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Muses and mittens

Having decided to have a break from writing this blog – just too many other things to do – I find that I am missing it for the oddest and most unexpected of reasons: running! I started running regularly again in August after a break of many, many months but this week, on a 10k run in the crystalline freshness of early morning, I suddenly realised how many of my half marathon training runs last year had been spent with my head in Blog World. It’s a system that served me so well: letting ideas for posts wash over me, exploring new ideas, crafting and drafting posts, playing with words and descriptions . . . while all the time, the miles slipped away beneath my feet without me even noticing. What a wholesome feeling it was, too, to end my run tired but energised and inspired with an urgent need to sit down and write: perfect workout for body and mind alike. Of course, I could simply compose virtual blogs in my head and not write them but that seems like a waste of time so in the interests of maintaining some kind of running discipline – currently 10k or more every other day –  I’m back (for the time being, at least!). 🙂

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I love this time of year here, one foot still firmly planted in summer but a soft, oh-so-subtle slide into autumn. My morning runs are a complete joy (well, apart from the running bit), such a golden opportunity to appreciate what is going on around me as nature shakes out her summery tail feathers whilst gently flirting with something fresher, crisper, duskier. The sunrise is a glory of colour as the mountain tops are set alight above the mist-strewn valley.

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This season always brings me an immense burst of creative energy, too; a compelling need to start new projects, to get busy and make things. Logic tells me this would make more sense in spring but life has its own ideas and the compulsion to create now is overwhelming. It could be an offshoot of my harvesting activities, a sort of wool-based version of picking, drying, storing – laying down comforting things for the colder months and leaner times; or perhaps it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that my active outdoors life in summer leaves little time or motivation for sedentary woolly activities. Whatever the reason, once I feel that itch I need to get scratching! My first thought is usually to launch into a new spinning project: I hear the tantalising whisper of Blue-Faced Leicester, Shetland, Kent Romney, Jacobs, those beautiful British breeds so perfect for socks . . . but not this time. The project sitting on my silent and  – to my shame – cobwebby wheel has been on there so long it must surely be a contender for ‘The longest time ever taken to spin 100g of Merino’ prize. Admittedly, I am spinning it very finely (it could even be laceweight in the final reckoning) but still, no excuses: I need to finish it so I can start planning its long overdue appointment with the dyepot. My fleece box must stay firmly shut for the time being.

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My knitting activity has ticked over through the year mainly in the shape of socks, my absolute favourite default project. I’ve had a lot of fun making colourful pairs as birthday gifts for family and friends and more recently I’ve turned my attention to replacing some of my old faithfuls that gave up the ghost last winter. It’s an ongoing pleasure, but not quite enough to satisfy my current restless woolly spirit.

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Having spent over a year creating crochet gift blankets in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colour combinations my basket now holds a single project – the ‘Cottage’ ripple blanket I bought with a birthday voucher last year. This is another bundle of cosiness for our little mountain house, so there is no end date and no mad dash to finish. It’s the perfect pick up-put down activity and what a pleasure it has been this week to enjoy a few quiet hooky moments in the sunshine under the fig tree (with a bowl of freshly-picked fruits for company). I want this blanket to take me time to finish, there is something so therapeutic about working up and down those colourful waves. Slowly, slowly. No rush.

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Very often, the inspiration I am looking for to kickstart my new project comes from what I see around me. It can be things as obvious as the rainbow hues of a sunset, leaves shrugging off their summer greenery in a blaze of autumn fire, the velvet kaleidoscope of a butterfly’s wing, the play of sunlight on the sea . . . but just as often, it’s something simple and unexpected (I think the right word is serendipity). For instance, last winter, I created a blanket based on a bowl of oranges, lemons and pomegranates sitting on our kitchen worktop.

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There have been plenty of those little moments that have caught my eye and started to play with my imagination this week. Standing at the bottom of a ladder holding the trug while Roger climbed up to pick figs, my gaze was drawn upwards to the beauty of the afternoon sunshine lighting up those huge leaves with shards of brilliant blue sky between. Gorgeous.

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Eucalyptus trees below a fingernail of moon and silhouetted against an early morning sky had a rhapsody of blues, greys and silvers running through my head.

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It’s all about shape and textures, too. A pile of walnuts drying in the sunshine, the passionflower still in bloom along the garden fence, the harvest of squash from the vegetable patch, the soft candyfloss fluff of morning clouds . . . there are possibilities in all these things if only I could pin them down.

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In the end, though, the nudge I needed came from another blog. Reading Lucy’s (Attic 24) post about an upcycling project, I was reminded of the old Merino aran jacket I’d found in the attic earlier this year; well past it’s best and with an irreparable hole front and centre, I had decided to unravel it and re-knit it into something more useful. One day. Maybe. Instead of focusing on new yarns, perhaps now would be the time to do something with that instead? After all, it would be very much in keeping with my minimalist, want not, waste not attitude to life and a very rewarding thing to do . . . but what should I make? Thanks to Lucy again: her introduction to the stunning creativity of Nienke Landman had me hopping and skipping in delight. Embroidery on woollen garments? Something new and different and just the thing to set my mind whirling with possibilities. A quick tour round the internet to see what other clever people were doing with the same idea produced a treasure trove of ideas. My goodness, some of those pieces were so ornate, more embroidery than garment to my eye. Pieces of art in their own right, surely, but it was the sweet simplicity of Nienke’s designs that had appealed to me in the first instance. There is something softly Scandinavian about them, the good common sense of wrapping extremities in wool against the winter elements but adding a little burst of summer meadows to lift the spirits in the darkest of days. I was reminded of Adrienne’s  beautiful hand-painted wedding invitation which I have kept pinned on the kitchen wall; the simple strokes, the subtle colours . . . just perfect.

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So, what to make? My first thought was gloves as my current pair is looking decidedly the worse for wear. Gloves are great: they are practical, functional, efficient. Gloves keep your hands warm whilst leaving your fingers ready for action; you can pick chestnuts, stack logs, shape snowballs, wipe cold little noses. Gloves help you get the job done . . . which is why I finally opted for the lazy decadence of mittens instead. I haven’t worn mittens since I was a child and haven’t knitted any since our three were littlies. There is something wonderfully uncomplicated about them, wrapping your whole hand in a cocoon of cosy comfort, keeping fingers safe and snug and still. Two handsful of hygge. What a lovely idea. Once the big decision has been made, I know from past experience of this Autumn Itch thing that I have to start now.  Normally, I take time over projects; I like to ponder and plan, mull and muse. Instant gratification and impulse buys don’t even register as the faintest flicker on my radar. (Note: this in in contrast to my love of spontaneous things in life. The words, ‘Why don’t we drop everything and climb a mountain with a picnic?’ are music to my ears. Always.) Sewing up is my least favourite part of any knitting project but I have to admit unpicking comes a close second, it’s such a painstaking process and I knew any accidental nicking of a stitch in the fabric would mean a knot in the skein. At least the beauty of being a spinner is that my trusty niddy-noddy was on hand to make the job easier.

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In a relatively short time (and with not too much cursing and muttering) two former sleeves were unravelled, skeined, washed and hung to dry in the October sunshine.

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I couldn’t start the knitting until the wool was fully dry and balled but in the meantime, the now sleeveless body of the jacket at least gave me a backdrop for a little ’embroidery’ of my own. Something tells me the stitching will be much harder!

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The beauty of knitting mittens is that the pattern is super simple and after so much work with fine sock yarn, I’d forgotten how quickly an aran weight yarn will work up. By my own admission, though, it did feel a bit ridiculous sitting in flipflops and shorts and 30 C of heat knitting a thick woollen mitten. Ah, well.

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Knitting in the round would give a more professional finish (and no seam to sew) but I decided to use a flat pattern on two needles instead as it meant I could work any knots out to the sides. Also, it occurred to me that from a practical point of view it might be easier to work the embroidery on flat fabric rather than rummaging about inside a mitten tunnel; to that end, I’m not planning to sew the side seam until the pretty stuff is done. So, one mitten down and I’m resisting the temptation to start the embroidery until the second one is done.

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That doesn’t mean I can’t think about possible colour combinations, though . . .

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. . . and as for a design, well, I need to get my thought processes busy. Time for a run, then! 🙂

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Signing off

I’ve decided to stop blogging so this will be my last post for the foreseeable future, perhaps ever. There are no bad or sad reasons for this. I haven’t fallen out with my love of writing, it’s just that after five and a half years I feel it’s time to take a break and do something different with my time. For instance, I’ve recently renewed my commitment to disciplined daily Spanish study; some of my learning resources are online and as I don’t like spending too long staring at a computer screen, once the Spanish is done I don’t feel like writing a blog post. Much as I love the buzz of writing, at this point I know in my heart of hearts it’s far more important to be working at improving my (still) very basic understanding of Spanish rather than messing about in fluent English!

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After two and a bit years we have finally reached the last phase of house renovation and with a big push now, it should be pretty much done and dusted by early autumn. Wow, what a project it has been, transforming what was basically a mountain hovel into a bright, clean, comfortable home. House done, we can turn our attention to the many, many outdoor projects we have in mind for the garden, meadows and woodland. That is going to be interesting, exciting and rewarding but will also take a lot of time and energy so other things will have to take a back seat.

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We’ll also have more time to get out and about which we are both really looking forward to. There is still so much to see and do locally, so many parts of beautiful Asturias left to explore . . . and then there’s the small matter of the entire Iberian peninsula. Well, it would be rude not to make the most of such a fantastic opportunity, wouldn’t it?

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We love to walk and the promise of more regular hiking already has me smiling. We want to put our bikes back on the road and do some cycling, sling our swimmers into a backpack and indulge in more wild swimming. Asturias is made for outdoor living and has so much to offer from surfing to ski-ing, riding to rock-climbing, camping to kayaking . . . who knows what new adventures await us?

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After almost a year out of action with a knee injury (ironically, not running related), Roger is now back to his old training ways and notching up 120km (75 miles) of running a week. He has started to enter races again and hopefully can look forward to some more Spanish podium moments in the coming months. After a rush of blood to the head, I’ve decided to start running again myself in a sort of masochistic ‘if you can’t beat them . . .’ way; I’ve even joined a running club for the first time in my life so that I can enter some races here. I will always be a plodding pony but that doesn’t matter; races need plodders as well as whippets and I know after training for a half-marathon last year that the benefits of regular running are huge. It’s something we can share (if not actually do together – Roger runs literally twice as fast as I do!) and we’re planning to travel more widely to events in the coming years. Reykjavik marathon (for the hare) and 10k (for the tortoise)? Well, why not?

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Of course, there are all the other things we love to do, too. I still have a huge box of fleece to spin and dye, a pile of colourful yarn to be knitted or crocheted into beautiful things, a stash of patchwork fabrics waiting for a project, not to mention several cross-stitch kits and a tapestry I still haven’t finished after fifteen years (ah well, no rush)! I have a guitar I don’t play anywhere near enough and Roger has his banjo to master and a motorbike to strip down. We have a huge pile of books brought home from our favourite charity bookshop in Ludlow – we are both avid readers – and a thousand and one recipes we still want to try. Then, naturally, there is the garden, our patch of flowers and food carved out of a steep mountainside that keeps us constantly busy and entertained.

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When I first started to write a blog on the now defunct ‘Vegblogs’ site, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing; I had no idea how to create a blog and only slightly more about how to operate a camera. I learned so many new skills and had such a lot of fun that I decided to carry on through various gardens and blogsites. It has been a real pleasure to write and share and a privilege to be part of a vibrant, creative community. I’ve learned much from other people and have made some lovely friends along the way. I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has taken the time and interest to read my posts on both current blogs, to everyone who has ‘followed’ me, to everyone who has been kind enough and interested enough to make comments either on the blogsites or in personal emails. Your support has been hugely appreciated and of course, I shall still dip in and out to see what other bloggers are up to, it’s such a lovely thing to do.

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So, time to say goodbye. Who knows, I might start to write again in the future, either picking up from where I’m leaving off or in another fashion altogether. The temptation, I feel, will always be there! For now, though, I have the rest of an adventure to enjoy and an exciting, happy and very full life to live. On which note – it’s time to put the keyboard away and GET OUT THERE! 🙂

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Family trees (and other special plants)

Isn’t it a lovely thing to share other people’s gardens? Whether it’s a case of simply relaxing and drinking in the sights, sounds and scents or else mooching about through plants and produce, exploring colours and textures and perfumes,  for me it is always an enjoyable and inspiring experience. The last few times we have visited Roger’s parents in Ludlow, the weather has been too inclement to spend much time outside so what a treat on our recent trip to be able to luxuriate out of doors in proper summer weather. The garden they have spent several years creating is stunningly pretty, very long and narrow with teasing vistas that draw you naturally ever upwards, climbing the steep path through formal plantings, a productive vegetable patch, an orchard and a wild area at the very top.

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I love the Jack and Jill seat nestling in a green, leafy glade, completely hidden from sight but enjoying far-reaching views of the South Shropshire hills. I also love the way personalities of plants and gardeners alike echo through different spaces and I have a habit of coming away from other people’s gardens with inspired ideas to transplant into our own patch. The morning sunlight through that magenta clematis had me popping with joy and rushing out to find one similar  . . .

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. . . and true to form, I managed to come back with not one plant but two, a magenta ‘Aotearoa’ and a lilac ‘Proteus’ to keep it company (of course). I also found myself drawn to a pretty grouping of plants: a golden rose, a soft, buttery yellow marguerite and bright sunny creeping Jenny all combined with a somewhat moody purple sedum. Colour wheel opposites, artistically paired.

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I’ve forgotten the name of that rose but what I do know is that Sam gave it to his Granny and Grandad at their golden wedding anniversary party; so good to see it still going strong eight years on and there was a satisfying circularity to the fact that we were there to provide a grandparent chauffeur service to Sam’s own wedding. When it comes to gifts, we often choose experience over stuff; our wedding present to Sam and Adrienne is impossible to wrap but that golden rose inspired me to find them a ‘living’ card, something to plant as a reminder of their special day. Over the years, we have planted many things – trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs – to mark birthdays, anniversaries and special milestones in our lives; it’s such a pleasure to watch them flourish and be reminded of happy days and celebrations. For Sam and Adrienne, I fancied a climbing or rambling rose, something that would suit them and their garden, that will (hopefully) flower on their future anniversaries and with a name appropriate to the occasion. ‘Shropshire Lad’ would be a good choice for Sam but not without a ‘Montgomeryshire Miss’ to go with it! In the end I plumped for a Harkness climber, a really enthusiastic looking plant with pretty coral buds, flat pink blooms with bright yellow centres (a little past their best in the photo but this beauty will flower three times in a year) and a delicate perfume. The name? ‘Summer Sweetheart.’ Ah, that will do nicely!

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So to the wedding itself and what a truly captivating day it was. We are so thrilled that all three of our offspring have had the imagination and courage to turn their backs on the excessive and unnecessary spendathon so typical of modern weddings and instead have opted for something small, intimate and very personal – a true celebration of their special day, bursting with their own creative touches. What an idyllic setting for the ceremony at St Mary’s House, Bramber , an enchanting 15th century timber-framed house with five acres of immaculate gardens.

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How lovely to spend time in the gardens after the ceremony, the children playing tag and hide-and-seek and bubbling with mischievous energy, the adults mingling and chatting and laughing in the sunshine. No official photographer running the show; instead, simply the informal pictures taken by everyone there which capture the atmosphere so much better than anything posed and staged.

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The ‘tunnel’ of homemade petal confetti was utterly beautiful as was the bridal bouquet; no stiff and formal hothouse prima donnas here, rather something sweet and pretty that could have been gathered straight from a cottage garden. Gorgeous!

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What a wonderful reception, too, at The Artisan Bakehouse where tables and chairs were set up outside in the sunshine. No formal seating plan, no speeches, no standing on ceremony; instead, a blissfully relaxed and happy time for all, chatting over a glass of bubbly, playing lawn games and indulging in the delicious food. So much fun and laughter. What a perfect, perfect day!

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On one of our previous UK trips, Sam and Adrienne had treated us to a prototype wedding cake, a delicious confection of lemon and pistachio lovingly baked in their kitchen. In its final rendering, that citrussy top layer was filled with whimberries, freshly picked from the patch where Sam popped the question last year and decorated with crystallised pansies picked from the hanging baskets he had given Adrienne for her birthday. There is just something so right about all that.

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So, home again to Asturias and time to check what’s been happening in our own (somewhat neglected) garden. There’s been plenty of rain, just perfect for the new hydrangeas we planted with Annie – one for her, one for Matthew – to celebrate the recent holiday they spent with us. Ah, more happy memories. I was also delighted to see the agapanthus in bloom at last; it’s been a bit tardy this year but is now resplendent in vibrant blue and carries yet more meaning for us.

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It was a gift from my brother and his wife, given on Sam’s eighteenth birthday to mark the fact that we had raised all three of our children to adulthood. At the time, I was touched by such an unusual and totally inspired gesture and this ‘Northern Star’ variety, designed to thrive in cooler climes, has flowered every summer without fail. Not surprisingly, however, it has moved up several gears since arriving in Spain; I’ve split the original plant once and both pots are ready to split again. I might even try some in the ground this time. Our garden will never be perfect but it is in so many ways a reflection of our family, life, love. I like that. 🙂

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September Bouquet Blanket

There’s still something so pure and heartfelt and emotional and genuine about a bouquet of flowers . . . Vanessa Diffenbaugh

With my self-imposed finish line of early July looming ever closer, I recognised the need to crochet like a mad thing in order to have the ‘September Bouquet’ blanket ready for its trip northwards. Not for the first time, I was thankful that those squares were pretty easy to make and so I just made sure I picked up my crochet hook in any spare minute to get all 90 done. That of course was the easy bit! Then came putting them all together . . .

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I suspect that most proper and talented designers have a clear picture in their minds or on paper of exactly how their finished work will look, backed up with research, sketches, colour swatches and lots of practice bits and bobs. That never seems to work for me; ideas just hover around the periphery of my imagination and it’s not until I have everything in front of me to mess with (I’m very much a visual learner, I think!) that I start to see the finished thing. I’ve never made a ‘colourwash’ project before, so having scrubbed the floor, I laid the squares out and began to play.

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My goodness, did that take some time! I switched and swapped and swapped and switched then walked around looking at them from every angle . . . then started all over again. It’s a good job I have a very understanding husband as I was blocking the main thoroughfare through the kitchen for quite some time. Eventually, I settled on a plan: purples moving through blues to greens then yellows. As the final round still had to be worked on each square as the joining round, I could at least tell that the finished blanket would be big enough. No need for any extra squares. Phew!

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If I had made much smaller squares and used more colours, I think the most effective way of organising them would have been to mix them through a bit; for instance, different shades of blue next to one another with an occasional purple or green at either end. These squares somehow felt more comfortable sitting together in their own little colour groups, sort of ‘not quite stripes.’ I joined them vertically which meant changing colour every one or two squares; this made the job more interesting and as each new strip was added, the solid blocks of horizontal colours appeared as if by magic.

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I’m not sure if this is what I’d been imagining but I felt pretty pleased with the outcome.

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So, on to the border. I hadn’t given it a single thought until the squares were joined at which point all I can say is I knew what I didn’t want. The sunburst flower pattern creates a fairly dense square which in turn makes for a cosy, weighty blanket. This was definitely not the place for a lacy border, nor anything too open and airy or too narrow; I wanted something firm and closely-woven to echo the feel of the squares, with the possibility of using plenty of the colours in the process. Having hunted about for ideas and tried a few things out, I opted for the linen stitch edging by Lucy at Attic24. This is a simple and speedy stitch which builds up into a tight-knit border of beauty and – even better – allowed me to use all eighteen colours! Given that the first colour would have to nestle comfortably up against the other seventeen, I opted to start with ‘Parchment’, the most neutral shade I had. Similarly, I knew from finishing the ‘Granny Patchwork’ blanket earlier this year that ‘Parma Violet’ makes a subtle outer edge colour that sits more harmoniously than stronger shades against whatever surface it rests on.

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All that remained to be done was fill in the space between the two and with so many colours being used, I felt the need for a little plan to keep me on the straight and narrow.

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The most important thing about working this border was not to pull it too tight so I switched hooks and opted for a 5.5mm bruiser; it’s a rather snazzy metallic green number but boy, did it feel chunky! Still, it’s amazing how quickly it moved around the blanket and revealed the charming pattern. Here’s the ninth round being worked: almost halfway there . . .

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. . . and the other nine done.

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Blanket finished, with time to spare. I feel like I’ve moved a long way from my starting point of the beautiful wedding bouquet Sarah made for herself but I hope at least there is an echo of the colours and textures that she gathered together in such a stunning way and carried under a brilliant blue September sky almost five years ago.

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Certainly for me it has been a huge, indulgent pleasure to remember such a happy day with every stitch I’ve made. How can such a simple pastime bring so much joy?

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Now I breathe a sigh of relief that it’s finished in time to take and give in July – a little early I know, but we have Sam and Adrienne’s wedding (yes, another wedding!) to attend and I am so excited! Happy, happy days! 🙂

 

 

 

Lone thoughts from abroad

Once again, the month of May has brought me a time of solitude.  Just a few days this time rather than the three weeks of last year but the principle is the same. I’ve never minded being alone – in fact, I think times of gentle solitude are a beneficial thing for everyone now and then – but I do find the days very long, so the key is to keep busy. No problem there, I am never short of things to do and – if you will excuse the photo pun – I’m not short of time, either.

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Gardening is always my first port of call, partly because we grow so much of our own food and those plants need to be looked after but also because for me, time spent outdoors being busy in the fresh air and totally engrossed in nature is so precious and rewarding. We have had a very concentrated effort together over the last week, so all the major preparation and planting have been done and now it’s down to me to keep an eye on it all and potter away at general ‘caring’ activities – weeding, tying in, watering, bug patrol and the like. I love the way everything grows so quickly at this time of year, there’s such a feeling of burgeoning growth and excitement in the patch and something truly wonderful about the promise of all that good food to come.

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Of course, it’s not just about food and I’m always happy to spend time with my nose in the flowers, too. I’ve been potting up geraniums for ripples of summer colour.

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The roses and jasmine are building up to a spectacular show and their heady scent hits my senses and feeds my soul every time I step out of the door (which is always open at this time of year to invite those tantalising perfumes to waft inside).

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I have no idea what variety this rose is but happily we have several of them, deep-scented and gorgeously resplendent, cartwheeling down the walls in their ruffled cancan petticoats.

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Wandering around the garden, I find myself seduced by those unexpected moments, the kaleidoscope of plants and flowers doing their own thing. Here, a white rose mingling with Jacob’s ladder, pretty as a picture.

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There, self-set mustard in a halo of acid yellow, thrumming with insects.

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A single Welsh poppy, soft as a sigh.

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The filigree pincushion of a flowering Welsh onion.

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How can I not smile . . . and how can I drag myself indoors to attend to other things with so much beauty to savour? Well, of course at some point I just have to, in part because I need to eat! Making bread has become a way of life for us and I see no reason to abandon that just because I’m on my own so I’ve been happily beating back the dough this week. It is one of the great bonuses of our lifestyle that we have the time to bake and we are blessed with a wide choice of flours and plentiful supply of fresh yeast. Our usual loaf is made from a mix of white, wholemeal and spelt flour flavoured with seeds or walnuts (the traditional local bread) but we love to make ‘world’ breads, too and think nothing of throwing together some naan or tortilla, pitta or pumpernickel or whatever, depending on what we’re planning for dinner.

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Tapenade rolls

Bread making is such a wonderful activity; for me, it’s like making mayonnaise – something to be done with care, patience and love. One type of bread we’ve always had mixed results with is sourdough but that has all changed since our recent UK trip. Sam and Adrienne (who have the whole sourdough scene totally sussed) gave us a jar of starter to bring home and I can’t describe the enormous responsibility I felt towards it. After all , it’s a living organism that needs careful feeding and I was slightly terrified of killing it before we had even made the Spanish border. By an amazing coincidence, the book I was reading at the time told how the Pilgrim Fathers had carried a single crock of leaven on their famous journey across the Atlantic, keeping it alive all the way;  suddenly, West Sussex to Asturias didn’t seem quite so bad!

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Sourdough starter feeding time: strong white flour and rye at the ready.

Our first try at a couple of sourdough loaves was fascinating; the speed with which they rose in the oven was totally insane! We have a long way to go to perfect the technique – particularly getting the scoring right – but so far the bread has a lovely texture and is completely delicious. Here’s to many more happy sourdough bread moments!

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Like making bread, planning and preparing our evening meal together is a huge part of our lifestyle. Always based on what’s good in the garden, we love to indulge in old favourites and try out new recipes alike. One of our preferred dining styles is a tapas / meze type of meal with lots of different small dishes combined to make a perfect whole. It’s such a great way to eat and suits homegrown veg so well as a little bit of something special – a few asparagus spears, a globe artichoke, a handful of baby broad beans – can be made to go a long way.

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Cooking for one, though, can be a bit awkward. It’s very tempting to live on scrambled eggs (during last year’s time alone, thanks to the warm generosity of our neighbours I ended up with four dozen eggs!) or soup which is fine but not very exciting, so for me at this time of year the answer is salads. I LOVE salads, I think they are such a wonderful way of celebrating the season and there is nothing better than a freshly foraged mix of leaves, herbs and flowers packing a healthy punch of crisp colours and zingy flavours.

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It’s certainly nothing new. I keep coming back to this passage, originally written in Italian in 1614:

Of all the salads we eat in the spring, the mixed salad is the best and most wonderful of all. Take young leaves of mint, those of garden cress, basil, lemon balm, the tips of salad burnet, tarragon, the flowers and tenderest leaves of borage, the flowers of swine cress, the young shoots of fennel, leaves of rocket, of sorrel, rosemary flowers, some sweet violets, and the tenderest leaves or the hearts of lettuce. When these precious herbs have been picked clean and washed in several waters, and dried a little with a clean linen cloth, they are dressed as usual, with oil, salt and vinegar. An offering to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, by Giacomo Castelvetro.

How on earth in latter times did limp lettuce, slimy cucumber and tasteless tomato become an ‘acceptable’ salad? Whoever thought that was a good idea? What a truly wonderful thing it is to wander about picking edible bits and pieces to combine in a dish of gorgeousness: here I chose Little Gem lettuce (we have a pile that needs eating out of the tunnel before the melons take over), baby chard leaves, mint, chives, marjoram, chervil, lemon balm, baby peas and pea shoots with borage, coriander, calendula and chive flowers. Of course, I made way too much so there was plenty left for lunch the next day.  🙂

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When I was raising a family or going out to work, cleaning the home was always something of a chore, a necessary activity to keep our household ticking along but not something I ever particularly enjoyed. Now I have to admit to feeling a sort of contentment at spending time cleaning. In part, I think this is because I can now do it at my leisure, rather than cramming it into tired evenings or precious weekends. As we’ve spent two years slowly but surely turning a grotty hovel into a bright, warm, comfortable home, caring for it brings a sense of achievement and celebration. Also, our living space is fairly small (four rooms and an entrance porch) so it’s hardly an onerous task! I favour a ‘green clean’ policy: like organic gardening, I think it’s better for us and the environment we live in and natural cleaning products are so much more pleasant to use than all those heavy duty, chemical-laden gloops and squirty stuff. My basic cleaning kit comprises white vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, bicarbonate of soda and lemon essential oil – simply add elbow grease.

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The vinegar is brilliant for cleaning windows and mirrors. Mixed with lemon juice and bicarb, it makes a great all-purpose paste for cleaning the kitchen and bathroom. A small amount of olive oil with a squeeze of lemon juice and few drops of essential oil makes the best wood polish I’ve ever used. Any bits left over are mixed with a squirt of eco-friendly mild washing-up liquid and hot water to wash the floors. Job done – a bright, sparkling home smelling of freshly-squeezed lemons and garden flowers.

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Who needs air freshener?

What has been especially lovely about cleaning this week is there has been the guestroom to prepare, too; Roger’s mum is flying back with him for her first trip to Asturias so it has been a real delight to make everything ready and comfortable for her. We’re hoping it will be the first of many such visits!

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A glimpse of the guestroom.

The evenings are the time of day that seem to stretch out when I’m alone so there’s been nothing for it but to resort to my unquenchable wool habit. What a pleasure to sit in the evening sunshine serenaded by the raucous birds and crickets, then move indoors at sunset and curl up with a mug of tea, some background tunes and a basket of yarn. I’ve been having a bit of a birthday sock knitting bash of late; it’s an activity that I truly enjoy but I now really need to turn my attention back to the September Bouquet blanket if I have any chance of finishing it by early July. I’ve been doing bits in odd moments here and there and the squares are starting to mount up but probably not fast enough. Thankfully,  the sunburst flower pattern is a lovely, easy make with that ‘sunflower’ snuggled in the centre of every square.

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My starting point for the blanket is 90 squares, five in each of the eighteen colours I’ve chosen; from there it will be a case of working out the finished size I’m looking for, accepting that I might have to work some extra squares. Then of course there’s the joining and border which will both take time. I’ve resisted the temptation so far to start messing about with possible layouts but my eye is constantly drawn to those piles of squares nestled in my basket and I can see how the whole colourwash idea might just work.

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Time to make haste and get those squares finished. Mmm, yes but . . .

I’ve banned myself from starting any new knitting until the blanket is finished and in all honesty, it would be good if I could just focus completely on this project. Good . . . but totally out of character because as always there’s an itch I’ve been wanting to scratch for some time and this week I had a little nudge in the right direction (or wrong direction, depending on your perspective). Now that we have lovely clean, dry storage upstairs I’ve finally moved my sewing machine-and-other-stitching-paraphernalia box down out of the horreo. Having a little sort through my treasures, I found a wooden quilting hoop that I bought for a few pennies in a closing down sale many years ago; I subsequently discovered it was much easier to quilt on the sewing machine so the hoop had become completely redundant until I had a little lightbulb moment. I have been toying with the idea of making a mandala for several months; it seems to be one of those essential crochet rites of passage but as I’m really not a ‘make woolly mats to stand things on’ sort of person, it’s been hard to find an excuse. Until now, that is . . . because I think the children’s sleeping den we have created upstairs needs something bright and colourful to jazz it up before Annie’s visit and what better than a giant rainbow dreamcatcher worked inside the quilting hoop?

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I’m using the starflower mandala pattern from Zooty Owl  and my goodness, what an amazing project it is! My plan is to work the rounds in the order of rainbow colours and keep going until the circle is large enough to stretch on to the hoop in a colourful web. This is so different to working blanket squares and every round seems to bring a magical change; I need to concentrate very hard, not least because I’m mentally converting from US to UK terms as I go along, but I’m having a lot of fun in the process.

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Actually, since starting on my crochet adventure last year, I have had as much enjoyment from the things I’ve made to use up scraps as I have from the major works and there’s a lot to be said for that – except perhaps for the fact that they distract me so much from the matter in hand. Ah, but how can I possibly resist such dazzling temptation?

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The ebb and flow of the days bring other activities, too: sharing emails and Skype chats with loved ones; pushing on with my Spanish study; taking photos and drafting blog posts; walking through the woods; chatting with neighbours. Time ticks away and very soon I shall need to turn my thoughts to airport taxi duty and a special homecoming meal. How lovely it will be to have company, conversation and shared laughter once more. Until May comes round again, perhaps? 🙂

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