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. 🙂

Nature’s garden: Part 3

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

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

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Truly magical! 🙂

 

 

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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Sensing Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Art and soul

I am happy to admit that I am a terrible artist. As a child, I was in awe of those television programmes where Tony Hart, armed with tins of paint and fat emulsion brushes, created a masterpiece on the wall in a few deft strokes. I desperately wanted to be that talented but after three years of high school reports which predictably stated, ‘She usually tries’ it came as a relief to myself and the art department staff when I could finally, blessedly drop the subject for good. That said, I love painting: even wide expanses of fresh plasterboard needing coat after coat of emulsion don’t faze me (good job since we’ve had plenty here over the last few months) but I am never so happy as when I can indulge my passion for colour and a little creativity. This week, then, has been a time of great painty pleasure.

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My first project was to make a name sign which eventually can be fixed to the house wall (ah yes, there’s another big painting job in the pipeline), using a lovely slab of slate that Roger had rescued from a tumbledown wall in our field. I wanted to make something that would reflect the feel of our home and our love of the outdoors; something simple, bright, colourful and fun where the name was legible but not dominating. The whole point of sharing this is that it shows you don’t need one jot of artistic skill in order to be artistic; purists may think my approach is cheating, but I prefer to see it as innovative! So, armed with a fortifying mug of tea, I went forth to create.

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My calligraphy skills being no better than my art ones, I did the obvious thing: found a font in our word-processing program, blew up the size then traced it carefully from the screen. Having no intention of painting anything freehand, I then got busy with an ancient stencil; a lot of messing with a simple box of children’s acrylic colours and far too much fun later, a sign emerged. A couple of coats of exterior varnish and it was all ready for business. Something from nothing once again!

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We reached  a great milestone this week in finally being able to move into the room upstairs. One of the knock-on effects is that all the spare bedroom furniture could be moved out of the kitchen/living area and everything rearranged a little. I decided it was time to brighten up some bits of old furniture, starting with a very basic pine shelf unit and a nesting table for what is now officially the guest bedroom. I set up a painting studio outside and, since I was using a universal primer, I threw in an old metal milk churn for good measure.

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While that all dried, I set about revamping another nesting table indoors. We have a large black halogen lamp which is brilliant to knit, crochet, sew and read under at night but it is such an ugly thing; I can’t do anything to pretty it up but I thought I could at least create a colourful table for it to sit on. My other motive for this little project was to try out chalk paints before committing to use them on our old linen chest of drawers which has been desperate for a new paint job for several years (decades, actually). Chalk paints really are the ‘in’ thing and I have to admit I’m not a lover of fads; I have quite happily and successfully painted furniture for many years with leftover bits of gloss paint and yes – truly – even emulsion. However, I’ve been really impressed and inspired by some beautiful pieces of furniture Adrienne has created with chalk paints so I decided to give them a go. Before starting, I did a fair bit of online research, read plenty of advice and then chose to ignore most of it. I didn’t opt for the designer brand that everyone raves about but instead bought a Spanish variety which was a lot kinder on my pocket and offered a good palette of luscious colours to choose from. I didn’t buy a special brush for the paint, just used an old one; neither did I invest in a special wax brush or even special wax as Roger informed me he had a tin of brushing wax in his Man Shed (honestly, that place is an emporium!).

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So how did it go? Well, the paint was a dream to use (I love the fact you don’t have to prime) and went such a long way; so far, in fact, that I changed my plan for the bedroom table and decided to chalk paint that, too, rather than use the eggshell satin I had lined up for it. The colour is absolutely gorgeous; it’s called ‘Mediterranean Blue’ and is a deep, dreamy cobalt, just beautiful.

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When it came to the waxing bit, I knew I could well be using completely the wrong stuff and I did have a minor panic when the (yellow) wax immediately took the colour down a few shades. I was also slightly concerned about how many articles I’d read about this part being very hard work. Well, it’s all relative, I suppose: to me, shifting several tonnes of gravel by hand is hard work. So is giving birth. Brushing a few coats of wax on and buffing it off again just seemed like a very pleasant wet afternoon’s activity, especially as the yellow effect disappeared with the wax and a lovely, lustrous shine surfaced. Job done.

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So now that I know what I’m doing, I’m all set to tackle the linen chest with some more of that lovely blue paint coupled with ivory. By the way, I won’t be distressing any of these chalk painted bits and pieces. I know we all have different opinions – which is to be celebrated – but as a country mouse born and bred,  I have never understood the fashion for filling rural homes with so-called shabby chic. In fact, it’s very much because the linen chest has been steadily distressing itself over many years that I feel the need to paint it again. Recognise that old stencil, by the way? Definitely time for a new look!

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I gave the shelf unit a couple of coats of eggshell ‘Eau de Nil’ to match our interior doors and it looks right at home tucked into the guest bedroom.

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Anyway, back to that milk churn. When we moved here, we found we had been left a house and several outbuildings full of furniture and miscellaneous items; most of it was broken down rubbish which the friendly chaps from the town hall kindly came and took away – it took them two trips in a very large van. Boy, did we have rubbish! The two milk churns, however, were something I wanted to hang on to as I had a cunning plan for them. I love the fact that they represent a little bit of the property’s history and I wanted them outside where they could be seen and enjoyed as big planters. Well, of course – if in doubt, add flowers! I could have left them as they were but something inside was whispering bright colours so I opted for ‘Summer Sky’ which seems somehow appropriate (or at least, it will be once the current run of crazy storms here has worn itself out). I think this will be the perfect eye-catching foil for flowers of any colour; just look at how scrumptious those beautiful deep magenta tulips look against that bright, bright blue.

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However, a nod to the colour wheel says orange and nasturtiums were the first to come to mind. I love nasturtiums and particularly the way they flourish here in the wild, hurling themselves down banks and verges in a brazen tumble of flaming glory in May and again in September. Last year they self-set amongst the sweet corn and climbing beans and as that patch is now under a poytunnel, little seedlings are popping up like mushrooms in the warmth.

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I’ve lifted three of them and transplanted them into a pot just the right size for nestling into the top of the churn in the hope of a bright and sunny waterfall against the blue; once they have finished it will be easy enough to replace them, maybe with a riot of geraniums. Whatever happens, the milk churn should bring a splash of summer colour and a smile or two to our less-than-pretty courtyard. Now for the second one. Blue again? Mmm, still thinking about that one.

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My final paint project and if nothing else, this one proves at least that I haven’t been on a complete bluefest all week! Here is another piece of ‘inherited’ furniture and let me say straight away that it’s dire. It’s wonky: last year I used it as a painting step and wobbled off it more times than I can remember. At some point in its history the seat has completely split in two and has been ‘mended’ supremely badly with a bizarre arrangement of staples. It is riddled with woodworm. In short, it’s a piece of junk which would best serve as morning sticks . . . so why have I rescued it from that fate and painted it?

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Well, the answer lies at the end of our woodland track, a ten minute walk from the house and one of my absolutely favourite places. We have a long term plan to make a two- person seat here; in fact, we even have the base from an old single futon put aside just for that purpose. The problem is, it’s a long way down the priority list and in the meantime, I really wanted somewhere I could perch and while away a little time, so the wonky stool seemed just perfect. I’ve used the paint we have for a garden seat in the orchard; it’s called ‘Olive’ and definitely veers towards the grey side of green which is fine as I didn’t want it to stick out like a sore thumb. A couple of coats and off I went up the lane with my stool tucked under my arm.

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One of the things I love about the woodland spot is that it’s like entering another world; turning into a different valley, the gentle murmurings of village life disappear and all that is left is the sound of a mountain stream tumbling to join the river, a cacophony of birdsong and the soft susurration of the wind through the trees. When the sun shines, the glade is flooded with soft light but I enjoy it in the rain, too, Why not? Armed with my trusty brolly, it’s the Asturian way. This is my ‘sitting place’, somewhere I can think and ponder, daydream and plan, mull and meditate; it’s a place that makes me open my eyes and mind to the small wonders around me; it’s a place that feeds my soul and makes my heart sing. It’s my little haven of mindfulness.

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It’s a place where I can just BE . . . but now I can do that in (wobbly) comfort. How wonderful is that? 🙂

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Gardening: go on, give it a go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poke a pea into the ground and let nature do the rest (actually, this one is self-set – even better.).

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Golden pak choi: there will be no more meals for us from this plant but instead of pulling it out I shall leave it to flower –  lazy gardening, but it’s a great nectar source for insects and will set seed I can collect and plant again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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I love the garden in all seasons.

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

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

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

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Simple beauty.

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

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Fresh new growth on rainbow chard planted last summer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Simply celebrating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Simply living

‘Could there be anything better than living simply and taking it easy?’ Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

We have never set out to be self-sufficient in an extreme ‘Good Life’ sort of way; there are too many commodities we need but can’t produce ourselves, and  – to be completely honest – there are also things we love and wouldn’t like to live without (coffee and tea, for instance). Our aim is to live simply, walking lightly on the Earth and living gently from the land as much as we possibly can. We are happy to have just what we need and no more, and that is a lovely place to be. Neither of us is shy of hard work and yet somehow even on the busiest of days, spending our time on tasks that support our lifestyle can feel exactly like taking it easy! What’s more, the freedom from rigid timetables and responsibilities allows us to take time ‘off’ and enjoy the beautiful place in which we are so lucky to live.

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Walking the coastpath last weekend . . . 

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. . . then up into the mountains.

In cooler months, the woodburning stove  – aka ‘The Beast’ – is absolutely central to our lifestyle. We had hoped  to keep the original stove here but it proved so inefficient and unreliable in our first winter that replacing it was the only choice and once again we opted for a Nordica.

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This is an Italian make, at the ‘budget’ end of things compared perhaps to better known makes of kitchen ranges but we rate it very highly – so much so that this is the third house where we have installed one. Nothing clever or fancy, it simply burns wood in the form of good old-fashioned logs . . . and here is an area where we can be self-sufficient. Half our land here is forest, about four acres (1.6 hectares) of mixed woodland which contains a lifetime’s sustainable supply of logs. We can take what we need through careful woodland management, there is no question of plundering or destroying; all it requires is careful planning and a lot of work! The wood needs to be hauled home, cut into lengths, split into logs then stacked in a stone shed to season until dry enough to burn.

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This is an ongoing process, always looking ahead. This year we have the added bonus of an enormous pile of old timbers which were removed from the house when it was re-roofed in the summer.  We could have paid several hundred euros to have it thrown in a skip and taken away but what would the point of that been? A few days’ hard work at the time created the timber mountain outside and Roger’s daily chainsawing session is steadily reducing it to enough logs to see us through one if not two winters.

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The benefits of having the stove are many. Having opted for an open, cabin style-home it heats the entire house; we have a few modern electric radiators for back-up but quite honestly, I doubt they will ever be used. We are toasty with a capital T! We don’t have a tumble drier: 95% of our laundry is dried outside in the fresh air, but a collapsible wooden airer in front of the stove overnight dries or airs anything if we have a run of rainy days. A kettle of water sits permanently on the hob, providing boiling water for tea and coffee, all our washing up and household cleaning purposes. A constantly hot hob and oven mean we can cook as much as we like without having to worry about using the electric cooker efficiently and it is perfect for those things that need long cooking like the batch of marmalade made earlier this week.

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A hot stove in the morning also means we can cook dishes for lunch, a luxury I have really enjoyed since giving up work and being at home – it beats a lunchbox any day! In the photo of the stove above, there is a pan of lentils cooking as a base for a lunchtime salad and on the worktop next to it, two trays of dough rising for ciabatta loaves.

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Gardening and growing our own food have always been important parts of our life and something I find difficult to regard as work; I love being out of doors with my hands in the soil and the benefits of fresh, organic produce with zero food miles are priceless. Sarah and I often agree that there is a lot of fun to be had ‘foraging’ in your own garden as even at this time of year when it is perhaps at its emptiest, it is amazing what can be gathered. With this in mind, I set off to pick what I could find to go with those lentils, thinking probably a small bulb of fennel and a few herbs would be it . . .

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What a lovely little haul! There was fennel (the smaller bulbs are starting to go to seed now so need eating quickly), mizuna and baby komatsuna from self-set plants, peas ‘three ways’ (a few pods of sweet baby peas, small pods to eat whole and pea shoots), mint and chives for herbal flavour and calendula and borage flowers for colour. Mixed with lentils, salt, pepper, olive oil, grated lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice, what a splendid salad they made.

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Making stock is a way of life for us and here again the stove comes into its own. We bought a stainless steel stockpot over 20 years ago and it is one of the best investments ever, we have used it so much (not just for stock – that marmalade was made in it, too). No bits of meat or fish bone, skin, scraps or shell (in the case of seafood) leave the kitchen without first having been boiled and simmered into a gorgeous, flavoursome stock. For us this is not just about creating the base for future meals but also doing full honour to the animals we have eaten. There is simply no waste. The same is true of vegetable stock, so easy to make and a world away from anything that comes from a cube. The beauty of it is that any bits and scraps of veg can be used so it’s a good way of using up anything that’s past its best and, as the finished stock is strained, the veg can go in skins and all. Here is the pot I made this week:

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A scrappy onion, a couple of garlic cloves, rainbow chard (stalks that had self-pruned), the last few carrots from our late crop now suffering from rootfly, some leafing celery, a tiny leek that came out when I was lifting bigger ones, a couple of definitely-past-their-best parsley stalks and salt and peppercorns yielded three litres of delicious stock, some of which went straight into vegetable soup, the rest into the freezer for future meals. Really, this is something from nothing!

On which subject . . . we are trying hard to get as close to zero waste as possible; it’s not easy, but making compost has again always been a way of life to us, and a great way to recycle organic matter into (eventually) more food. I’m not keen on having a kitchen compost bin which always seems to go slimy, so we use a large plastic mixing bowl instead and empty it daily. I don’t think our current compost heap would win any prizes at it is not very pretty and breaks several golden composting rules: it sits directly on concrete, it isn’t covered, there is only one heap rather than two or three in rotation, we only turn it once a year and we just throw on whatever needs composting rather than any strict green / brown layering. Oh dear!

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Well, the proof of the pudding and all that: I turned the heap a couple of days ago and found many, many barrow loads of the richest, crumbliest, most wonderful compost ever – enough, in fact to mulch the whole of the veg patch currently fallow (most of it) with plenty left to dig into the area where a polytunnel will soon be going up. I think we’ll just stick with the rule breaking, it seems to be working a treat.

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Back to the idea of living simply and taking it easy. A very rainy day saw me looking for an indoor activity and I had just the thing which certainly felt like relaxation. Some months ago, I crocheted a couple of dishcloths from scrap cotton yarn and they have proved to be the best things ever (I realise sounding enthusiastic about dishcloths might seem a bit sad, but I am a simple soul). Given that we don’t have a dishwasher and all our washing up is done by hand, they have taken quite a bashing without showing any signs of wear and tear at all. I throw them into a hot wash with sheets and teatowels and back they come, ready for another go. On the strength of this, I decided to make some more, this time from a slightly heavier cotton: a 100g ball yielded two dishcloths and a larger floorcloth. While I was at it, I dug out some more scrap cotton and knitted a purple tawashi knot scrubbie to use as a scourer (thank you to Sonja for the idea!).

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Simple things and happy days. There really isn’t anything better! 🙂

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Simple pleasures, golden treasures

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

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

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Looking for the next muddy puddle . . . 

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

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

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

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

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

Admiring plenty of summer colours still lingering in the garden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The gift of giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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