The road less travelled

Often footsore, never
Yet of the road I weary,                  
Though long and steep and dreary,
As it winds on for ever.

Edward Thomas

Having recently celebrated another year in my life’s journey, I’ve been giving some thought to what it feels like for me to be 53 (my goodness, that old?! 🙂 ). I know it’s a cliché but I certainly feel like the older I get, the less I know – yet the more I want to learn, experience and feel. By that, I don’t mean I have an urge to travel the world, gain more qualifications, chase adrenaline highs, break records or spend my time ticking a pile of items off a long and crazy bucket list. Quite the opposite, in fact; something I have come to realise more and more in recent years is that when life is lived simply and I allow myself to be open to all possibilities, even the smallest experiences can be of immense value. Life-changing, even. The path might not always be easy or clear, but anything that helps to keep me physically fit and active, gives my brain a good workout, encourages creativity, bolsters my sense of fun and helps me keep a sense of wonder is treasure indeed.

This was all brought home to me this week when we spent a day exploring a local walking route on the excuse that Sam and Adrienne are coming to stay with us in January. Our time with them is always golden (especially so now they live in Norway) and generally revolves around lots of good food and hiking so we like to have at least one new walk up our sleeve for when they visit. The Esva gorge is probably my favourite walk here and one I never tire of, so I was very excited to be following a different circular route that would bring us to it from a completely new direction. Starting in the village of Naraval, about half an hour’s drive from home, we climbed gently through green meadows in a quintessential Asturian landscape.

The next section came as something of a surprise, though, and was a reminder that the only constant in life is change; it had been billed as several kilometres of forest . . . but the trees had been harvested, the forest gone and in its place, a wide expanse of empty moorland. Mmm. Now I love a bit of woodland so disappointment was my first reaction but, on further reflection, I could see the positive side. It seems that the area is being left to regenerate naturally as part of a rural forestry project, rather than being planted with the ubiquitous eucalyptus, and the resulting dense undergrowth was thick with bird life. Is this rewilding in action?

At the same time, the open landscape gave us the chance to enjoy some spectacular views and – what still always come to me as a surprise in such a mountainous region – those vast expanses and sweeps of sky.

Several kilometres into our walk and we decided to perch on a rock and enjoy a flask of strong, Spanish coffee and some home made mince pies. Is it me, or does coffee take on a whole new delicious flavour at times like this, that nutty roasted aroma curling up out of the flask into the December air? The mince pies weren’t bad either; I’ve been playing about with my mincemeat recipe this year as I couldn’t find some key ingredients but I have to say cranberries for currants, butter for suet and walnuts for almonds have been great exchanges. The star, though, is the home made candied peel: why, oh why, have I ever bought pots of that sticky, gloopy stuff when it is child’s play to make and a hundred times more delicious? I’m definitely not too old to learn new tricks! Anyway, back to our walk and, suitably refreshed, we carried on until suddenly the top of the gorge appeared in front us. Looking across at the mountain opposite, we could see a path we have followed before, winding its way across the mountainside; when we are on it, it feels completely wild, a bit like a remote cliff edge hanging over a dizzying height – quite funny to see another path and houses above it, then!

It is almost impossible to capture the scale and beauty of this place in a photo, the gorge plummeting in a deep, steep-sided fissure, the rocky sides clothed in a blanket of trees, layer upon layer. My woodland at last! A little sunshine would have set the view alight but even without it, there were enough leaves to burnish the landscape with the metallic brights of late autumn.

We stood and watched a black kite wheeling gracefully above us on silent wings, its forked tail printing a perfect V against the sky. Below us, the tumbledown ruins of a stone cottage, the remains of a bread oven still visible in one dilapidated wall. Was it courage or madness to have built a home here, hauling and shaping and placing blocks of stone to create a shelter in such an eyrie?

Things really started to get interesting now as we began our descent following a path known as Las Vueltas del Gato (Cat Bends). This is an ancient drovers’ path, used by the vaqueiros to move their cattle from the valley bottom to the higher pastures for summer grazing in the practice of transhumance. I love paths like this with their deep sense of history and rural tradition, that faint whisper and echo of thousands of footsteps that have passed this way before. Two things are certain: the building of this path was an incredible feat of engineering and both man and beast that followed it must have been very sure-footed because blimey, that is one heck of a route!

It was like going down a steep rocky stream bed which felt near vertical in places (I exaggerate only slightly, I really was wishing I’d taken my trusty stick at this point) and made incredibly tight turns in tricky places. No question of not concentrating, we had to watch every step as we zigzagged down, making a point of stopping here and there to enjoy the view. It was an incredible descent – 170 metres’ drop in 500 metres of walking – and I have to admit, I was happy to be going down: the climb up would be something else!

The further down the path we travelled, the louder the sound of rushing water became until at last, we glimpsed the glassy green of a river between the trees. Well, rivers, actually. In front of us, the serene río Navelgas-Barcena  and to our right, the busy, chattering río Naraval; they meet on a wide sweeping bend in a pool of deep, clear water, their union giving birth to the beautiful río Esva.

What a completely magical spot this is, I could quite happily sit here for hours just drinking in the peace and magic of the place. There was such a strong sense of nature in the raw, the sheer activity and power of fresh water on its ceaseless journey, deftly carving a sinuous pathway through the land. Here the mirrored silver of slower stretches, there the bright foamy babble over rocks; so much movement, so much energy, so much sound. The skeletal trees, too, told their own story, their gnarled trunks and branches cloaked in soft moss and spattered with starry lichen, the last leaves fluttering down around us like silent feathers. What a feast for the senses. What a perfect moment in life. Money could not buy this.

This was the lowest point of our walk so we decided it was a good place to eat our picnic lunch before beginning the long trek back. As the next section involved wading across the río Naraval, we thought it wiser not to risk soggy sandwiches (for the same reason, Roger was in charge of the camera – if anyone fell in, it would be me). The route directions said that it was usually possible to cross the river this way and thankfully it was, as the thought of having to climb back up Las Vueltas del Gato didn’t fill me with too much joy. This sort of carry on does, though; I mean, how often do we do daft things like this? and why don’t we do them more often? Just the simple sensation of forest floor beneath my bare feet, then rocks, then chilly water was enough to make me giggle with the sheer childlike exuberance of being alive. The boulders were slippery, the pools deep in places and the water moving at a fair old lick but I made it across without dropping my boots or falling in. Brilliant fun !

Feet dried, boots back on and toes tingling and warm again, we walked along the tree-lined banks of the río Navelgas-Barcena  before turning upwards into a long climb. The path was certainly easier than those Cat Bends, rising steadily through a mixed forest and giving us glimpses across the valley to where we had been earlier.

At the top of a rise, we came to a four-way crossing and hit a bit of a snag; as an official walking route, the AS-287, the way had been marked pretty clearly so far but just as we really needed a sign, there was nothing apart from a couple of ambiguously placed yellow and white crosses to indicate where we shouldn’t go. Our map and directions (which had lost so much in translation they were almost like a third language) weren’t much help either, as both had suddenly become very vague. In the end, we plumped for what we hoped was the right turn (well, left in fact) and set off along several kilometres of gently climbing path which wound its way through a coniferous forest.

The trees had very much been planted for a harvest, their formal rows and grids so different from the wild tangle of the woodland below, but there is still a charm to stretches of forest like this, the sharp pine scent, soft carpet of needles and a wealth of spiralled cones.

The route we were following was supposed to be 14 kilometres (8.7 miles) in total and we were within a couple of kilometres from the road that would take us back to our starting point when we turned a corner to see this . . .

Now fallen trees and boulders are a fairly common occurrence here and we have found ourselves scrambling over or wriggling under such obstacles on numerous occasions. This, however, was more than just a fallen tree and the throaty growl of machinery beyond suggested that scrambling over would be pointless; there was a major forest harvest in full swing and the whole path had become completely impassable. Nothing for it but to retrace our steps and try to find an alternative route over the mountain and down to the road. At this point, I was thankful for several things: the fact that we hadn’t scoffed our whole picnic by the river but still had apples and water in our rucksacks; the fact that there were still a few hours of daylight left; the fact that my feet and legs felt like they could manage the extra miles that were now inevitable; mostly, the fact that we both have a good sense of direction and a good sense of humour – both would be needed in the next couple of hours! There’s a choice in this kind of situation, isn’t there? Either feel frustrated, cross or hopeless and turn it into some kind of drama or look on it as an adventure, part of life’s rich tapestry and deal with it . . . which is what we did. After all, we weren’t lost exactly, just not completely sure where we were and common sense told us there had to be another way down; there was, of course, it just added another six kilometres (3.7 miles) or so to our walk. Ah, well. Onward, my love.

We finally arrived back in the village of Naraval, crossing the river of the same name once again but using a modern road bridge this time – no need for bare feet here. The charming old stone bridge was still there, too, another ancient reminder of times gone by, when the pace of life was slower and bridges only needed to carry feet and hooves across the water. Time for us to head home and reflect on the adventure we’d had, such a precious and enriching experience in a very special landscape and so many miles without seeing another soul. It seemed that nature hadn’t quite finished with us, though: what a perfect ending to a wonderful day. 🙂

Ageing gracefully: run, stretch, balance and breathe.


Just because you’re grown up and then some doesn’t mean settling into the doldrums of predictability. Surprise people. Surprise yourself.

Victoria Moran

Something very strange is happening to me. I set out for a run one morning this week, aiming to do 8k (5 miles); in the end, I ran more than 11k (7 miles), including the hard slog up the final hell hill which is a climb of 70 metres over a kilometre (or 230 feet in 0.6 miles). When Roger asked me  – as he always does – how my run had been, my answer was, “It was great!”Shock. Horror. Hold the front page. This does not happen. I’ve been running for a while now but I’ve never, ever learned to love it. Runs are hard or terrible but never great. So what has changed? Well, I’m starting to feel fitter and stronger because I’ve committed seriously to regular running and other stuff (of which more later) . . . and that’s all down to a rather special little booklet that Roger has recently been given by the British Masters Athletic Federation.

An easy read over a cup of tea but a big message to influence the rest of our lives.

Before I go any further, please let me say that I am not trying to preach or tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be doing. I wouldn’t dream of it. The reason I wanted to write this post is partly to share what we are doing to keep fit and active as part of our simple lifestyle but also to reassure anyone (particularly our age or older) who might have doubts about giving exercise of any kind a go. Believe me, if I can do it, anyone can. Don’t worry about what other people might think, this is about you. You don’t have to be good at it, you don’t have to ‘look the part’, you don’t have to compete or win anything. There is a difference between exercise and sport. Be kind to yourself, smile at yourself and have fun. You might surprise other people. You will certainly surprise yourself. Yes, I’m a wild-haired, 52 year-old granny plodding about the Spanish countryside in bright pink trainers come rain or shine. Crazy? Quite possibly. Living life to the full? Definitely . . . and hoping to be doing the same for many years to come.

The penultimate runner in a long, hard race: very hot, very tired, very slow but very happy . . . and my own police escort to boot!

Back to that booklet. It succinctly summarises a Manchester Metropolitan University research project focused on continuing (or even starting!) exercise into old age. It’s a fascinating report and one which, given the demographics of an ageing population, should be a recommended – if not compulsory – read, as it is about everyone, not just master athletes, and contains a message which could change and enhance many lives. According to the researchers, currently around two out of three older adults do not meet the recommended levels of physical activities which has serious consequences for health and mobility in later life. Well, that stands to reason, doesn’t it? Human bodies are made to move at any age, to walk, run, jump, bend, stretch, climb, twist and generally be anything other than mostly sedentary. As long as there is no serious underlying illness then raising our heart rate, breathing hard and having temporarily aching muscles is a good thing. What an incredible inspiration someone like Eileen Noble is; she didn’t start running until she was in her fifties and has just become the oldest lady to run the London Marathon two years in a row. She’s 84. How fantastic.

(For anyone interested, the brochure can be read online here http://bmaf.org.uk/health-well-being-performance-improvement )

That exercise and well-being go hand in hand is pretty irrefutable but trying to maintain an adequate level of activity whilst working or raising a family is incredibly hard, especially in those long months of dark days and grim weather. It takes a special kind of discipline and resolve to keep at it. One of the huge benefits of our life here is having the luxury of time
like we’ve never had before to exercise fully and regularly over and above our usual daily activities. It can be hard though, believe me; we are so programmed to that subconscious charge that we should be ‘doing something’ that spending time away from chores to exercise feels like an indulgence, even though it’s the very best gift we can ourselves. We don’t know whether we will live to a ripe old age but we are both determined to stay as fit and active as we can for as long as we can.

I like the way the booklet emphasises the continuing importance of being busy outside ‘training’ times, too; it’s not about doing a session of exercise then doing nothing for the rest of the day but keeping active with things like gardening, housework, shopping and walking. Put aside sleeping hours and most of the day is taken up with being on the move as opposed to being on the sofa.

Who needs dumbbells? Lifting and hauling several of these full to the brim every day is great weight training.

Let me talk about running a bit, not because I’m a keen runner or a good one; in fact, precisely because I am neither of those things. I am not naturally sporty and have never particularly enjoyed the sensation of moving at anything faster than a brisk walk. I started running several years ago on medical advice and I hated it. I’m still not a fan, and it doesn’t seem to get any easier, but I keep doing it because the benefits to physical and mental health are well-documented and undeniable (my resting pulse rate and blood pressure have both fallen significantly in recent months) . . . and – hand on heart – I always feel better afterwards. Of course, there are other aerobic activities to choose from but the beauty of running is that it is so low-maintenance. You don’t need to be taught how to do it. You don’t need a partner or team. It’s virtually carbon-neutral (completely so if you run naked and barefoot, although I appreciate that’s probably not an option for most of us! 🙂 ) It’s cheap. You don’t need a bike or a swimming pool or a dance studio or gym membership or piles of hi-tech gear; just a pair of comfy trainers will do the job and, as long as it’s safe, you can run pretty much anywhere starting from your front door. I am very lucky in having to look no further for help and encouragement than Roger who, in athletic terms, is at the completely opposite end of the spectrum to me. He runs every day, sometimes twice, without fail; he runs very fast and wins lots of trophies; he’s ridiculously disciplined and incredibly fit. He’s also living, running, speedy proof that grandads can still gallop!

Number 74 heading for another trophy!

He only ever has two pieces of advice, though, and these have helped me hugely. The first is to run to how you feel: if you are feeling relaxed and going well, try for distance; if you are full of beans, add some strides and a faster section; if you’re tired, achy or just generally in a ‘I don’t want to do this’ mood, just go for a short, gentle leg stretch at a leisurely pace, breathing in the fresh air, listening to the birds, enjoying the wildflowers . . . but GO! The second is that if you want to run miles, then you need to run miles. Don’t worry about training schedules or plans, forget tempo runs, fartlek and the rest, don’t angst over cross-training: just lace up your running shoes and run. I do. It’s not just the physical activity, either: time spent outside in the fresh air is hugely beneficial to body and soul. In his brilliant book The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk describes how modern humans have become ‘homo encapsularis’, spending 80-90% of their time indoors and missing out on the many advantageous factors for physical and mental well-being that time in the great outdoors has to offer. Hippocrates claimed that nature is the best physician; well, he knew a thing or two, I suppose!

I’d expected the report to talk about aerobic exercise, weight training and flexibility but what came as a bit of a surprise was the section on balance and, more specifically, the importance of being able to balance on one leg for a sustained period with your eyes closed. Go on, try it! We amused ourselves (and probably several other people as well) testing this on our last ferry sailing; well, it’s a very long six hours of inactivity and you can only read so much. The slight bounce of a relatively calm sea added a frisson of excitement and much hilarity to our attempts but on a serious note, this is something we need to address. My balance isn’t actually too bad so I’d fondly imagined that it would be enough to add a few extra challenging postures to my standard yoga practice but delving deeper, it seems that tai chi is the most recommended activity (along with standing on one leg to clean your teeth or tie your shoelaces). I have to admit that tai chi isn’t something that’s ever appealed to me but to be fair, I didn’t really know much about it it. So, with the bit firmly between my teeth, I tracked down a small but useful secondhand book on the subject and watched a couple of short YouTube clips . . . then I had a go.

Well, it looks pretty simple . . .

Oh my goodness, but it is so much harder than it looks! I’m not sure about improving balance but trying to sort out my left and right, above and below, over and under and all sorts of other positional things whilst mirroring the video instructors, it certainly felt like some pretty strenuous brain gym. Graceful, I am not. For White Crane Spreads Wings try Ostrich Does Face Plant: this is going to need oodles of practice and patience. Roger has suggested we learn together and that’s an idea I love. We walk a lot as a couple but rarely run together and where he will do a session of strength work, weights and stretches, I will opt for yoga every time so what a treat to share this new experience. He has also suggested that if we lift the outdoor table to one side we can practise on the new terrace in the fresh air of early morning before the sun climbs over the mountain. How perfect . . . and if the tolerant folk in the village should look up and scratch their heads in puzzled amusement, then so be it. I’m more than happy to be labelled an eccentric Golden Rooster Stands On One Leg now if it means I can still Embrace Tiger, Return To Mountain when I’m eighty.

Not a bad backdrop for a little early morning stretching.

Good balance in part relies on core strength, those all important back, abdominal and pelvic area muscles that help to support and stabilise the spine. There are lots of activities that strengthen core muscles so as part of my new exercise commitment, I’ve opted to take the Ultimate Pilates 21-Day Challenge by Boho Beautiful    Now I hope at this point that Adrienne is sitting down because this will probably come as something of a shock to her; she has tried valiantly to interest me in Pilates several times and I have to confess I’ve never exactly bowled her over with my enthusiasm! However, I’m giving it another go and I especially like this exercise plan because it’s mixed through with lots of yoga. It will take me more than 21 days as I’m adapting it to fit around my running, which I do every other day. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I’ve discovered muscles I never even knew I had but already I can see a huge improvement. I’m using fewer modifications each time and feeling so much stronger when I run or spend the day on heavy gardening tasks. Even better, I’ve had to pull in my belts and adjust my bra straps  . . . and I seem to be back to the single chin I was born with. This is good!

Healthy eating is part and parcel of our approach: here, homemade pizza, mixed roasted vegetables and a pile of salad straight from the garden.

It’s amazing just how much inspiration can come from a small, free handout. It’s amazing just what human bodies can achieve, even as they age. I’m never going to have the speed or strength or poise of an athlete but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is to keep running and stretching, strengthening and balancing and breathing in that sweet, fresh air so that as I get older, I can still climb a mountain with my husband to watch the sun set or chase my grandchildren through the woods or just go out to run in the rain for the sheer joy of being alive. Hell, I might even master White Crane Spreads Wings. Now that can’t be a bad ambition for an old lady, can it? 🙂