Family trees (and other special plants)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September Bouquet Blanket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. . . and the other nine done.

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

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

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

 

 

 

Simple p-leisures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Braveheart thought he had it in the bag . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Sensing Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Simply celebrating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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