More meanderings

After ending up changing our walking plans last week, we decided to have another crack at our original idea to walk the Ruta de las Xanas and treat ourselves to lunch at the restaurant half way round. With it definitely open this time (nothing to do with the festival of San Juan last week apparently, they are actually closed every Wednesday!) and a comfortable 24°C with sunny intervals forecast, we set off in anticipation of another lovely day out.

We were planning to do a 9 kilometre / 5.6 mile circular walk, but I would recommend the first section which climbs from the car park and picnic site at Las Xanas up to the village of Pedroveya as the most perfect walk for anyone who wants a little taster of Asturias, a sort of perfect essence of the landscape distilled into a relatively short distance. The gorge, cut in places to a depth of 8o metres over millennia by the río Viescas, is not as long or quite as spectacular as the iconic Cares Gorge in the Picos, but I think it is prettier, far richer in different ecosystems and is definitely much, much quieter. As with so many of our walks here, we hardly saw a another soul.

The walk also has the added benefit for us that I can actually do it without too much trouble, unlike Cares Gorge which I have attempted from both ends, stepping out merrily for a couple of hours before collapsing in a vertigo-induced freeze. The only thing for it then is to find a ‘safe’ place to sit off the path and let my companion(s) carry on without me. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the walk for anyone else and learnt a long time ago to always pack a good book in my rucksack on those kind of jaunts! It is the most ridiculous thing, I know, but that’s just how it is sometimes.

Anyway, there is only one short stretch of the Xanas Gorge which I don’t enjoy much and the trick for me is to hang on to Roger’s shirt tails for a few moments – well, at least, to tuck in close behind him so I can focus my gaze on his sure and steady footsteps and ignore the sheer drop which my subconscious mind is convinced I’m going to inexplicably tumble down at any given moment. It might seem like a waste of good scenery but I think of it as a little bit of hiking mindfulness that gets me up there! It’s most definitely worth the effort because when I can lift my eyes again, the scenery is completely stunning.

Given that this walk is literally spitting distance from the Ruta del Oso where we cycled a couple of weeks ago, it was fascinating how the sides of the path bloomed with an almost completely different range of wild flowers. It never fails to amaze me how so much life seems to spring from the rocks!

The gorge is two kilometres long and towards the top, we caught our first glimpse of the river tumbling energetically in tiered waterfalls to crystal clear plunge pools below; this is reputedly the haunt of the mythical xanas after whom the walk is named.

When Annie visited us last year, we walked through the woods from home to the little río Caliente (literally ‘hot’ or ‘warm’ river – although it very much isn’t!) and being the proud owner of an enormous and very active imagination, she became captivated by the idea of such spots being inhabited by water nymphs. As none seemed interested in gracing us with their presence, she spent a long time weaving intricate decorations of flowers and foliage into Sarah’s hair and mine, which ~ as we both lack the necessary long flowing locks to be proper xanas ~ was obviously the next best thing! I’ve yet to see one of these enchanting beauties but I really can’t blame them for choosing to dwell in such magical spots.

Leaving the gorge, the path climbs steeply through a delightfully tangled swathe of broad-leaved woodland decked out in its full summer green and bristling with bird life. Eucalyptus and pine, those thuggishly scented big hitters, are both absent and so the air is filled with a more subtle perfume here, something lightly spiced, fresh and green with mushroomy undertones of damp, mossy earth. Amongst the lush undergrowth there are the faintest sketches of past human activity, tiny overgrown meadows and a tumbledown stone mill, which speak of lost years and changing times; how quickly nature reclaims the land once it is left.

More climbing and we emerged out of the trees to bright sunlight and breathtaking views. The meadows here were completely stunning, rippling with rainbows of flowers amongst the silvery grasses and shimmering with the haze of thousands of dancing butterflies. It’s impossible to do justice to the scene with words; I simply stood and stared.

The church of San Antonio occupies a beautiful tranquil spot where it’s possible to sit and rest or eat a picnic on stone seats and enjoy the surroundings. No sheep or dogs this time, their meadows are soon to become hay . . . and no picnic for us because we were almost at the village of Pedroveya and that promised lunch.

Now at this point in our walk we realised that we were, quite honestly, a complete pair of numpties. For starters, it hadn’t taken us anywhere near as long as anticipated to climb the gorge and consequently we were way too early for Spanish lunchtime service. Also – can you believe this? – neither of us was particularly hungry, as Roger had eaten his hobbit’s second breakfast after a long early morning run and I had tucked into my favourite super-sustaining brekky of oats, nuts, seeds and dried fruit. We know that the restaurant serves generous helpings of hearty Asturian dishes, true fill-your-boots comfort food indeed, which suddenly seemed far more suited to the end of a long walk in much cooler weather. Now, anyone who is beginning to feel we never actually stick to Plan A could be on to something, but hey ~ life’s more interesting that way and predictability is so outdated in my book! We have certainly sat in worse spots to ponder our next move, that’s for sure.

As we have something of a track record when it comes to near starvation on foodless hikes (sorry, Sam and Adrienne!), we had packed some emergency apples and plenty of water, so we decided to carry on with our walk and top up our tummies a bit later. It’s a steep climb from Pedroveya to the neighbouring village of Dosango but gives rise (if you’ll excuse the pun) to some utterly spectacular views; the sky was definitely doing its best to impress, too.

When we walked these lanes in January, the verges were studded with primroses and violets but now they were bursting with the dainty floral beauties we’d seen up the gorge ~ scabious, campanula, astrantia, pinks ~ and a supporting froth of yarrow, St John’s wort, Queen Anne’s lace and valerian amongst others.

There was a gentle busyness to Dosango; a chap quietly and rhythmically scything grass in an orchard and a lady bent double, pulling weeds from between the rows of glossy maize plants and the climbing beans that are planted to scramble up them. A seemingly ancient lady sat on her balcony, face turned to the sun and simply enjoying the incredible view; well, who could blame her?

From the village, the walk follows a road for a while then turns across country once more; it’s pretty much downhill all the way back to the start from here. This stretch reminds me slightly of the South Shropshire hills ~ the Stiperstones, perhaps? ~ with wide, close-cropped paths of springy turf and waves of bracken blanketing the rock-encrusted slopes. Just a few tough little mountain sheep required!

Time to act daft for the camera in a little burst of playful energy . . . personally, I blame those oats.

Down, down, down, and the last stretch happily passes through another area of deciduous woodland; not so happily, the camera battery died just as I was about to take a few close-ups of that chestnut tree by the side of the path. What an ancient and incredibly statuesque creature it is with a huge mossy-furred bole and limbs so twisted, heavy and stretched they seem to defy gravity. Never mind, I love this photo anyway; in a few days’ time we will be celebrating our 35th (!!!) wedding anniversary, and a little research tells me this one is ‘jade.’ Well, I have no desire for precious stones but for me, time spent walking with my Best Beloved in this landscape of countless greens is a priceless treasure indeed.

Back to the car and the briefest of stops on our way home soon had the (lack of) dinner situation sorted. We might have missed out on hefty tureens of steaming pote, fabada and arroz con leche but a couple of barbecued local steaks, homemade pitta bread and an abundant salad from the garden didn’t feel remotely like a disappointment. There’s not a bad view from our outdoor dining room, either. As for that promised restaurant meal ~ third time lucky, maybe? 🙂

Sunshine and soap

Sunshine is such a precious gift and never more so than at this time of year. We often celebrate with a special meal on the day of the winter solstice, or else ‘midwinter’ three days later, the point at which it is possible to tell that the sun has begun its journey north once more; as that coincided with Christmas Eve this year, we decided to have our feast on Nochebuena in the local way. For me, it is a deeply meaningful celebration, an acknowledgement of the way in which sunlight is essential to all life and the key to our very being. The worst of winter is ahead but after that, spring will come once more.

Although the shorter days see the natural world slowing down here after summer’s frantic activity, things are far from dormant. The garden still jingles with birdlife: blackbirds and blackcaps already staking their claim to the kiwis; robins bobbing across the mulched bare earth in search of skinny pink worms; chaffinches and great tits call in simple cadences whilst long-tailed tits chatter sociably through their acrobatics. I love the quiet charm of tiny green warblers, the cheekiness of wrens, the bravado of goldfinches and bluster of bullfinches who, even though they are stealing buds from the peach trees, are forgiven purely for their vibrant beauty. Above us, ravens croak and cough in high places, raptors soar and swoop on spiral trajectories and the silent, spectral heron stalks the river bank below. There is a pageant of colour and show in the floral world, too. No need for poinsettias here.

Lizards are basking in sunny spots, moles are making merry in the loamy earth and where ditches hold water they are gelled with frogspawn. We were woken by the persistent barking of a huge dog fox in the meadow behind the house and watched him through an open window, silvered in moonlight, as his confident call reverberated around the valley. Pure magic. As if the sun itself is honouring the season, we have been treated to a week of spectacular sunsets; I have watched mesmerised as clouds have mingled and morphed and colours bled and changed and deepened in a transient canvas of sheer artistry. No need for tinsel and fairy lights, either.

With Christmas Day free from distraction, we took a flask of coffee and headed out to walk along a path which circles the mountain opposite. It is a walk I love, following the curving contours of the mountain and enjoying stunning views of the sunlit valley below and distant peaks fading into hazy blues.

What sheer delight to feel the warmth of that sun! We walked long stretches without speaking, not because we had nothing to say to one another but simply because the silence was so profound; no sound of man or machine, not so much as a cat’s paw of wind in the trees . . . so perfectly quiet we could hear the flutter of butterflies passing on their drowsy wings. The air was suffused with the aromatic spicy scents of sun-warmed pine and eucalyptus; I often wonder if our distinct lack of colds and winter bugs has anything to do with this daily dose of nature’s own aromatherapy?

At one point along the ridge it is possible to look across and see our little white house nestled in the meadows below sweeps of forest. What always strikes me about this view is just how high the mountain stretches away from us and how wild and untamed the countryside becomes just minutes from our door. We are so blessed to live in such a place.

This warm, dry, settled weather seemed just perfect for taking my first tentative steps into the world of soap making. It’s something I’ve often thought of doing but have backed away from because I know that lye is nasty stuff. That said, we no longer have small children or pets to worry about and I am a grown up after all, so the time had come to give it a go. Projects like this always excite me; like dyeing wool, making soap is a fascinating mix of science and art and leaves me pondering its intriguing history. How did someone discover that running rainwater through wood ash and mixing the resulting lye with fat could make something so useful? My intention was to use ingredients we had to hand to make a very basic ‘kitchen cupboard’ soap, one that would give me an idea of how the process works without involving any fancy stuff; my thinking was that if it wasn’t very good, I could at least use it for laundry. To that end, I chose to use olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and sweet almond oil with lemon essential oil for a subtle fragrance and antibacterial qualities; no colourants whatsoever.

Soap making requires distilled water. Our water comes into the house directly from a mountain spring so it is free of the chemicals found in mains water, very soft and mineral-rich . . . and that is a problem. Minerals in the water can affect how the lye behaves and can also cause ‘dreaded orange spots’ to appear as the soap cures. As the idea of buying plastic bottles of distilled water somehow seemed to go against the whole ethos of my project, I decided to make my own. I floated a heatproof glass bowl in a stockpot of water, brought it to the boil, inverted the lid and piled it with ice. Within half an hour, my bowl was full of distilled water . . . and as we have a plentiful supply of free water and free heat when The Beast is lit, this is a very sustainable method – and adds to the fun, too!

Having gathered everything I needed, I decided to set up my chemistry lab outside; I always prefer to do things outdoors when I can anyway and it made sense not to be creating unpleasant fumes in the house if it wasn’t necessary. Working in long sleeves, gloves, goggles and mask isn’t the most comfortable of situations but from my experiences in activities like dyeing and beekeeping I recognise the good sense in a disciplined approach to safety – better to feel slightly encumbered than suffer a chemical burn or lose an eye.

Unfortunately, at this point my trusty Technical Support Manager discovered that the adaptor plug I needed for our long extension had blown a fuse and we had no replacement to hand; this meant I couldn’t use the hand blender outside so a change of plan was needed – cue carting most of that stuff back up fourteen steps to the kitchen! I could still mix the lye and water outside, however, and this I did; I didn’t see any fumes given off but the rapid appearance of condensation on the bowl certainly suggested an energetic exothermic reaction was well under way. While the lye cooled, I mixed the oils together and heated them gently to melt the coconut oil.

Then for the exciting bit, starting the saponification process. I slowly stirred the lye into the oils then got busy with the hand blender. At first, the mixture looked like a thin pancake batter but within moments had thickened to a light ‘trace’ – leaving a faint trail like a whisked sponge mixture.

This indicated that the water and oils had emulsified: the point of no return. I added the essential oil and blended a little bit more until the batter was thick and creamy, then poured it into silicone moulds; covered and left in the warmth of the kitchen, I needed to leave them for them for at least 24 hours to set . . . oh, the anticipation!

The moment of truth. I’m not sure whether I was nervous, excited or both but the soaps felt firm enough, so I took a deep breath and carefully turned them out of their moulds.

Amazing! I mean, obviously I knew I was trying to make soap and having read a couple of books and watched zillions of video clips, I was hopeful it would work . . . but isn’t it a lovely thing to try something so new and different, to watch a fascinating process unfold right in front of your eyes? The soaps looked and smelt like creamy lemon panna cotta, almost good enough to eat, and I was desperate to dive in and have a good wash! We could use them now but they are better if cured and will last longer in the shower that way. I’ve put them on an airy shelf in the airing cupboard (yes, we have one in the bathroom at last . . . also, we have a bathroom :-)) where they can stay for the next four to six weeks. I’m turning them daily and watching for changes in their texture and appearance; if the dreaded orange spots appear, we can still use them but I might have to rethink my distilled water plan for future projects. So far, so good.

Encouraged by my initial success, I’m now eagerly awaiting a parcel of new and more exciting ingredients so I can have a go at making solid shampoo bars. In the meantime, I’m wandering around the garden, lanes and woodland wondering what natural resources I might be able to use in creating my own toiletries.

What a wonderful excuse for being outside, filling my lungs with fresh mountain air, turning my face to the sun, drinking in the views and feeling such overwhelming joy at being alive. January might be looming, but my heart and soul are singing with soap and sunshine. Happy New Year, one and all!:-)

Ramblings

In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks. 

John Muir

I love a good walk. I run regularly because I appreciate the health benefits it brings but given the opportunity to put one foot in front of the other at a more leisurely pace, I’m first in the queue. For me, it’s such a simple, lovely activity that fulfils my fidgety need to be outdoors and moving . Of course it’s interesting to set personal challenges but there’s no need to be bagging Wainwrights or marching up Monros; it’s always fun to explore new places but in all honestly, there is a deep pleasure and quiet joy to be had by going through the door, choosing a direction and wandering around locally. To immerse myself totally in nature and watch the seasons unfolding in tiny detail is a privilege I will never take for granted.

Human beings are designed to move so it goes without saying that walking is good for us, both physically and mentally. I was fascinated and delighted to read recently that GPs in the Shetland Isles have started prescribing ‘nature’ to help their patients. What a truly wonderful and inspired idea that is. No surprise that it is based on a Scandinavian tradition; let’s face it – our northern cousins excel when it comes to understanding the true benefits of time spent outdoors and how much better if walking in fresh air and communing with nature proves a more successful remedy than medication.

I suspect there is an element of ‘prescribed nature’ here already. Walking is a huge Asturian pastime and plenty of people pass through the village on their daily jaunt, many of them very elderly; we often see a lady who walks literally miles on crutches and a chap who carries an oxygen bottle over his shoulder as he goes. There’s no such thing as bad weather stopping play, either – just take your brolly and carry on! I can’t be sure but a big part of me thinks there may well be a connection between this happy walking habit and the astonishing longevity in our valley.

Although I am happy to wander in solitude, there is something very special about walking with others, too. It came as no great surprise when downloading the photos from our recent trip away to find most of them had been taken on walks. I love walking with our grandchildren; there is something so precious about feeling a warm, trusting little hand in mine, now tugging me along (‘Come on, Granny!’) impatient to be off with a hop, skip and jump, now dragging backwards to look at things, poke with sticks, splash in puddles.

What an amazing thing it is, this opportunity to see the world once again through the eyes of a child, with their astounding capacity for observation, curiosity and wonder.

A long walk is a much-loved tradition whenever we get together with Sam and Adrienne, usually punctuated with large quantities of delicious home-cooked food! This time was no exception: a hearty breakfast of all-too-moorish pain aux raisins set us up for a walk along the River Ouse to Lewes. So many of our walks in West (and East) Sussex seem to have a literary connection and this time it was the turn of Virginia Woolf, passing the pretty house in Rodmell where she lived before tragically taking her own life in the river. The waters were turbulently tidal, the banks seaweed- strewn and studded with gulls; the view drew our eye constantly towards Lewes in the distance, dominated by its formidable Norman castle.

There is something about this landscape which always imbues me with an overwhelming sense of history; the very spirit of the rolling hills, chalk streams, swathes of woodland, richly fertile land and wide, far-reaching skies seems to whisper of the successive peoples who came and made it their own. 

Lewes has a very colourful history, one of the legacies being the lively Bonfire Night celebration; preparations were well underway for this year’s event as we entered the town. We sat in the peaceful grounds of the Priory, eating our picnic (ah yes, more delicious home baking!) and enjoyed the play of sunlight on the autumn colours.

What a place this must have been before its inevitable destruction during the Dissolution of the Monasteries: the Priory church alone was longer than Chichester Cathedral. I was fascinated by the Battle Memorial and as a passionate gardener, thought the medicinal and kitchen gardens were a wonderful touch. We wandered through the pretty streets up to the castle, then back along the river once more. 



Home again in Asturias and no surprise that to celebrate my birthday this week, another walk was on the cards. My first idea had been to wander from home and climb the mountain behind the house in a seven-mile loop of forest and stunning scenery. However, the need for a post office and butter (we hadn’t taken account of birthday baking needs when we last shopped!) suggested a long stroll along the coast path near Luarca might be a better idea. I love this stretch between the beautiful sweeping sands of Playa de Barayo and the pretty harbour town of Puerto de Vega, it is a place I never tire of.


For me, this is exactly how a coast path should be: lots of ups and downs along the clifftops, ins and outs around headlands and hidden coves, far-reaching views along the coastline, carpets of wildflowers, flurries of birdlife and that deliciously intoxicating sea air. I much prefer the seaside away from the hectic summer months, there is something fantastically wild and untamed and invigorating about it in December . . . although quite honestly, the weather was so beautifully warm and the air so soft and butterfly-laden, it felt just like summer! 

Immersion in nature here is complete. Apart from a few solitary silhouetted fisherman perched on rocky outcrops, motionless as herons, we saw no-one. In the soft sunshine and low light of the season, colour spooled across the landscape like bold brushstrokes on canvas and with every step and every breath I felt an intense awareness of the four elements at play. Fire. Water. Earth. Air. What greater way to mark the anniversary of my birth than in such a joyful celebration of the natural world and my connection with all things in the worldwide web of life? Good medicine, indeed.

To round off a perfect day – before cooking a lovely meal together –  a glass of bubbly in the garden, faces turned to the warmth of the evening sunshine. Nature, it seemed, hadn’t quite finished with us . . . 

Ah, John Muir certainly knew what he was talking about. Here’s to him! 🙂

SOS 24th November

We’ve been away for more than three weeks and after a time of frantic busyness and many, many miles travelled, it felt so good to arrive home late on Thursday by the light of an exquisitely beautiful full moon. All things considered, this is not a bad time of year to leave the garden to its own devices but needless to say, I was impatient for daylight and the chance to explore the changes that have taken place in our absence. Autumn has certainly happened, the valley bathed in seasonal colours and carpets of leaves; that said, it has obviously been very dry and – after several days of penetrating frost and snow flurries on the back of a bitter easterly wind in northern France –  a return to the cosy Asturian wrap-around warmth is sheer bliss. In fact, I felt such excitement and contentment at being back on our little patch of mountain that in a sudden rush of blood to the head, I decided a Six On Saturday moment was called for. Unpacking, laundry and all the rest can wait: welcome back to my garden! (Apologies for the wordiness, I haven’t blogged for weeks so needed to scratch a writing itch . . . feel free to skim! :-))

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We gorged ourselves on fresh figs right up until leaving at the end of October; they are over now but in their place is the new star of the fruit world – kiwis. I spend most of the year cursing this plant for its thuggery and taking the loppers to it every month or so to save the washing line, pear trees and a barn (truly!) from being totally engulfed. Ah, all is forgiven now as the vine drips with luscious fruits, sweet and juicy and just perfect as a post-run snack. We discovered last year that there is no need to harvest and store as the fruits sit quite happily on the vine in tip-top condition (whatever the weather) until April. By then, the birds will be helping us to finish the stragglers but who could complain after five months of such bountiful PYO?

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Staying with fruit and there is great excitement in the orchard as the first baby lemon continues to survive and grow. We planted the ‘Eureka’ tree a couple of years ago and should have seen the first fruit forming last year had it not been for a savage winter storm ripping off most of the foliage. We honestly doubted its chances of survival but it has fought back, nurtured through last winter and most of the spring in a blanket of fleece. The established lemon trees growing locally fruit all the year round so fingers crossed this little pioneer will be the first of many happy citrus moments.

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I know I’ve featured our anniversary ‘For Your Eyes Only’ rose before but I make no apology for slipping it in again as we have come home to yet another mass of gorgeous blooms – it’s the fourth time this bush has flowered in 2018. We really couldn’t ask any more of it, could we? I love it to bits. Enough said.

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The rose was one of a tiny handful of precious plants we brought with us when we moved here; previous moves have seen me lifting and potting small roots of virtually everything in the garden to take with us but as we shifted our entire lives to Spain in nothing more than a transit van and trailer, space was more than limited. No worries, there was plenty to work with here and one of the things I love about restoring a neglected patch is saving established beauties to maintain a sense of the garden’s history as well as adding my own stamp. As flat planting space is so limited, plants have been crammed into every nook and cranny, leaving many of them struggling for air. One such example is a fuchsia, very old and straggly and almost totally buried under climbing roses and Japanese quince by the steps to the kitchen. It’s a sad looking specimen but this year managed to send out a few pathetic green shoots which I promptly snipped off, poked into a pot of compost, stuffed in the polytunnel and forgot about (sorry, Mr P, but propagation has never really been my strong point). Anyway, the propagation gods must have been smiling as I now have three amazingly strong plants which have flowered for months and continue to do so. I have no idea what variety it is (maybe an expert out there can help with that one?) but I’m thrilled that one old plant at least has been restored to its former glory.

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I don’t do a lot of shopping to bring home with us (although boxes of good quality Assam tea are always on the list!) but couldn’t resist the temptation of a few packs of bargain bulbs. Tulips grow well here, so I’m hoping the dusky bluey-purple of ‘Blue Spectacle’ and pink-flushed cream of ‘Crème Upstart’ will serve as perfect complements to my predominant purples. Scilla ‘Blue Arrow’ and Ornithogalum ‘Arabicum’ are both new things to try and being native to southern Europe, I’m expecting great things of them. Okay, so the allium caeruleum ‘Azureum’ is native to Siberia but I just couldn’t resist the promise of that gorgeous blue! I couldn’t find freesia corms to boost my collection anywhere but was very delighted to chance on some ranunculus; inspired by the beauty of Jane’s Mudgee Garden , I’m hoping those strange, claw-like little bulbs will provide a colourful splash of frivolous frills come summer.

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Finally, I know I’m a sad muppet who needs to get out more but I was hopping and skipping with joy at the chance to go forth with my trug and collect vegetables for our first homecoming dinner. To me, this is what it’s all about: all those weeks and months of gnashing teeth and tearing hair over bad weather, poor germination, pesky pests . . . this is why I don’t give up gardening and do something more boring instead. From garden to kitchen in foodsteps, not miles, from patch to plate in moments. Yes, they are dirty and wonky and maybe a little nibbled here and there but there is nothing – nothing! –  to compare with the flavour and texture of homegrown vegetables. Florence fennel, autumn carrots and three types of kale. Perfect.

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Time for me to pop over to The Propagator’s site and see what other gardeners are sharing from their lovely gardens this week. Why not join me? Forget Black Friday, Six On Saturday is far more interesting and definitely better for the soul. Happy gardening until next time! 🙂

Wandering and wondering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The wisdom of work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verbena bonariensis that has popped up amongst the dahlias.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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The light fantastic

Summer has most definitely arrived here. The children have broken up for their lusciously long school holiday and the San Juan fiesta rockets have been crumping and thumping in the distance all over the weekend. We have put up the sunbrella, stacked the fridge with sparkling water and cooked our dinners outside on a wood fire every evening.

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Morning is now the time to get jobs done in the garden before the searing heat of the afternoon leaves everything  bleached of colour and soporific in the shimmering, silvered sunlight. There is no rush, though; I love nothing better than wandering out, still pyjama-clad, with my first tea mug of the day to breathe in the freshness and beauty of the moment and welcome the gift of a new day. The air is spiced with the scents of eucalyptus and lavender, sugared with roses, honeysuckles and sweet peas.

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Swallows skim the vegetable patch just above ground level, swooping and twisting like arrowheads through the plants with split-second precision (I wish I could capture them with the camera!). Even this early, the flowers are teeming with myriad insects. Lacy coriander blooms sparkle with dainty hover flies, lavender bristles with businesslike bees and everywhere – everywhere – there are butterflies, so many different varieties floating dreamily on painted wings.

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This is the time of day to truly appreciate the garden beauties; illuminated by a soft, dappled light they take on a whole new allure, a delicate elegance that is washed out by full sunlight. Here I can see every shadowed pleat and fold, every nuance of shade and texture, every mesmerising mystery of petal and sepal, stigma and style, frond and tendril, pattern and form.

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The wild ones, too, take on a fresh flush of beauty, clothing the garden’s margins in their soft hues and rowdy brights.

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There are the cheeky chancers, popping up uninvited in unexpected places: a nasturtium trailing cheerfully amongst the beetroot plants, satin Welsh poppies fluttering in the asparagus bed, a  self-set young walnut tree (they are weeds here, no question) on the edge of the patch. How can I be anything other than enchanted by their optimistic charm?

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So, to work and the main task of the week is weeding. Hoes are handy tools but I enjoy a bit of hand weeding, even more so now that I can take my time and do it with focus and attention rather than cramming it in around a hectic working week. I love the simple physical act of getting down amongst the plants and looking at them from new angles and through fresh eyes. I relish the smell of the earth, delight in the characters of the plants and cherish the work of tidying things up a bit. There is something so fundamentally satisfying about feeling the essence of all those scientific processes – germination, transpiration, pollination, photosynthesis and the like – going on all around me, not textbook descriptions but fizzing and buzzing with real in-the-flesh life. What a wondrous, miraculous thing it is! How captivating, too, are those vegetable plants caught in the teasing play of light and shadow; here even the mundane is taken to new heights.

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Working in the garden? No, we’re unashamedly tripping the light fantastic, don’t you think? 🙂

 

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. 🙂