Raising the running bar

The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.

Walter Bagehot

Following on from my earlier post about staying fit and active throughout life, I’ve embarked on a new fitness challenge which I’d like to share occasionally between now and the end of September for two reasons. The first is that I hope it might encourage and inspire others to have a go themselves; not necessarily at running (let’s face it, I’m not the most enthusiastic runner in the world so I’m hardly qualified to tell others it’s their thing) but at any kind of activity- be it physical, mental, practical, spiritual or whatever – that offers a new challenge and a chance to do something different, to learn new things and maybe surprise yourself (and a few other people) along the way.

It doesn’t have to be anything extreme or costly. You don’t have to trek across continents, scale Everest or swim the English Channel – although if that’s what floats your boat, why not? Something as simple as walking a daily mile or trying a new recipe or writing a blog can open up a whole new world and there’s certainly a world out there to explore. So, if you’ve always fancied learning how to kick box or dance the tango, play thrash guitar or speak Mandarin, cast a fishing line or use a potter’s wheel, go star gazing or wild swimming or bagging Munros . . . then what are you waiting for? If you’d love to walk along a midnight beach, barbecue in the snow, play in a chess championship, fly a kite, sing in a choir . . . what is truly stopping you? It’s never too late and you’re never too old; if you want to belly dance or sky dive at 70, go for it.

I have never been a sporty person, I have no running style and I’m desperately slow – any photos of me running where my feet actually look like they’re bounding off the ground enthusiastically are something of a rarity! I don’t really like running and I find it incredibly difficult but I keep at it, partly because I know it’s good for me but also because it reminds me that I’m alive. Yes, I’m a less than fit greying granny but I’m out there doing it and that makes me smile. It probably makes other people smile, too, but that’s just fine. If I can do it, anyone can. That’s a fact.

Luarca 5k in June . . . are those feet actually doing anything?

We spend too long listening to all those negative words – the couldn’ts and shouldn’ts and musn’ts – that do so much to nibble away at our self belief. Go on, do it . . . and don’t give a stuff about what others think. I have little patience for those who spend their time casting doubts or sniping and scoffing at the perceived failures of others. I might be wrong, but I think it’s better to have had the courage to try and fail, than never to have tried at all. We can’t rewind our life and start all over again so how important it is to use what time we have to the very full and cram in as much living as we possibly can. I really don’t want to get to my last gasp thinking things like, “Darn it, I never did get round to learning how to play the bagpipes.” Mind you, I know at least one person who would be eternally grateful for that missed opportunity!

The second reason for sharing is slightly more selfish: accountability. Changing habits, breaking out of old routines or developing new ones and sticking to promises and commitments is much easier if we make ourselves accountable to someone. It’s a bit of a paradox but we are far more likely to let ourselves down than let other people down so having a real live Jiminy Cricket to report to is a useful tool in sticking at something. Rather than nominate an individual, I’m using my blog as my conscience: it doesn’t matter if no-one reads it or passes comment (although it’s always lovely when someone does!), just making the appointment to write a few update posts will, I hope, be enough to keep me on the straight and narrow.

So what have I chosen for my newest running challenge? The usual route people take tends to be chasing longer and longer distances; I have nothing but admiration for those brave souls but it’s not for me. Marathon? No thank you. Ultra? Don’t even think about it. Half marathon? Nope, been there, done that and once in a life time was most definitely enough. Fell runs, trail runs and mud runs look fun but I’d rather do them at a leisurely pace in my walking boots!

After the half marathon, I did say I’d like to retain the ability to run 10k for as long as I can; it’s far enough for me (please don’t say it’s only two Parkruns!) and means an hour or so of continuous running, so remains quite a challenge. The obvious thing, then, is to shake myself out of my usual plodding pony habit and try and do it a bit faster. In my relatively short and non-illustrious running career thus far I have participated in four official chip-timed 10k races: one in France (66 minutes), one in the UK (63 minutes) and two in Spain (65 minutes and 62 minutes). My aim for number five is to try and break that elusive hour barrier and come in with a sub-60 minute time and where better than to have a go than at the Ribadesella 10k in September – the race where I ran the 62 minutes and 32 seconds last year?

Eyes closed as I came over the finish line . . .I was literally asleep on my feet.

Points in favour of Ribadesella:

  1. I’ve run the race before so I know exactly what to expect in terms of the event and the course; I know there is a tremendous atmosphere.
  2. Ribadesella is a pretty seaside town which provides a really picturesque setting for the race, part of which follows a long stretch of the seafront promenade. It’s totally beautiful.
  3. The spectator support is truly amazing every step of the way; it’s what got me to the finish line last year.
  4. The post-race victuals are a real feast, the ice-cold draught San Miguel a true life-saver.
  5. It’s flat, flat, FLAT!
What a stunning setting for a race.

Then again . . .

  1. It’s an evening race with a 6pm start. I’m more tuned to winding down for the evening at this point of the day, rather than running round a town with several hundred other people.
  2. The weather is unpredictable but it could be very hot. Last year it was nudging thirty degrees. In the shade. Which I wasn’t.
  3. The cut-off times are fairly tight. The organisers, marshals and local police do a fantastic job of closing all roads to keep runners and spectators safe and make it a true community event but the roads have to be re-opened as quickly as possible. If you don’t make certain points by certain times, you are disqualified. In this case it’s 5k in 35 minutes and 10k in 70 minutes: an irrelevance for the hares like Roger (who will probably blitz the whole thing in under 35 minutes) but an added pressure for the tortoises like myself.
  4. It’s a fast race. In my age group (Female 50) I was the last out of eight ladies, finishing in 01:02:30 – my best ever time. The winner did it in 00:42:34:50, the winner in the F55 class ran 00:52:55 and in the F65, 00:49:59 – that’s someone at least 14 years older than me running it twenty minutes faster! The Asturians have a dizzying talent for speed, so I know I’ll be flogging along somewhere near the back and that can feel a bit demoralising (if I let it).
  5. I don’t like races. I’d rather be in my garden.

Okay, time to stop whingeing, man up and get training. I’ve found an excellent training plan which I know is going to be tough but hopefully will get me there over ten weeks; actually, I didn’t really make the first two weeks as we were away from home but let’s not allow that to be an issue . . . There are plenty of new challenges to face, runs on five days a week for starters plus one cross-training day (yoga for me) and a rest day. 🙂 🙂 🙂 Two of the runs are a few miles at ‘easy’ pace (don’t make me laugh), one with an added session of strength training, one is a tempo run with a faster middle bit, one is shorter intervals at speed (now I have to laugh) with a recovery jog in between and the other is a long run, up to eight miles. Oh, and some of them require a ‘strong finish.’ Mmmm.

Salinas 6k beach race in May . . too much sand, too much wind, but the finish was in sight.

I am under no illusion whatsoever: this is going to be hard. On paper, running the whole race two and a half minutes faster than before doesn’t really look too difficult but that translates into losing 15 seconds for a kilometre (or 24 seconds for a mile) over and over and over . . . and that’s a fairly formidable mountain to climb from where I’m looking. In the end – in the grand scheme of things- it really doesn’t matter whether I get that golden sub-60 or not. The world won’t stop turning, the front pages won’t be held, my life probably won’t change that much . . . but (and it’s a big but) the process of trying will be a valuable experience, a fascinating, uplifting, frustrating, tiring journey of motivation, discipline, movement, fresh air, success and failure, tears and laughter. Above all, it will be about living and although I know there will be days when I’ve had enough and just want to throw in the towel, in my heart of hearts I know it’s the right thing to be doing. Probably a better idea than the bagpipes, anyway! 🙂

Ageing gracefully: run, stretch, balance and breathe.


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

Victoria Moran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number 74 heading for another trophy!

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

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

Well, it looks pretty simple . . .

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

Not a bad backdrop for a little early morning stretching.

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

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

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

Footprints


I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do. 


Edward Everett Hale
Moonset in the morning

I recently read a wonderful quotation by Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero- Waste Chef. She said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” Well, thank goodness for the kind of common sense thinking and down to earth pragmatism that cuts through the guilt and frustration felt by so many people trying so hard to do their bit for the planet. Search ‘zero waste’ and you’ll find a wealth of different definitions. Whether it is described as a philosophy, an ideology, a movement, a way of life, an impossible dream or all of the above the bottom line is about ordinary people (and many extraordinary ones, too) trying to reduce and eliminate waste through adopting sustainable natural cycles. It’s a whole lot more than simply (or not!) reducing what goes into landfill; it’s about not wasting precious resources, clean water, fuel, journeys, time . . . it’s about doing what is best for our health, our bodies and minds, our environment, the Earth and all that shares it. It’s hard. Very hard, in fact. Trust me, zero waste is not for wimps.

The internet is a great tool and there are some fantastic zero waste / sustainable living sites out there written by inspiring people doing some amazing things and sharing their expertise and experiences with generosity and enthusiasm. The problem is – and this is my personal opinion so feel free to disagree – that social media, with its emphasis on pithy phrases, clever graphics and arty photos, so often gives the impression of lives lived perfectly (and that includes the zero waste movement) which can lead those of us who are distinctly flawed feeling a tad inadequate. However, it needn’t be that way, hence my appreciation of what Ms Bonneau has to say. Instead of trying desperately to achieve zero waste and failing, surely it is better to do a few things (or maybe only one thing?) at a time and do them to the best of our ability. It’s that old saying about eating an elephant: don’t become overwhelmed by trying to crack it all at once. There is beauty and reward in being one of the millions who do it imperfectly because collectively the achievement is astounding.

Leo Babauta of https://zenhabits.net/ often cites accountability as a useful tool in helping to form new habits and behaviours; if you have to report your progress to someone then the chances are you will stick to your resolution. This is why I think it’s important for me to write occasionally about the progress we are making in our attempt to live as simply and greenly as possible. It doesn’t matter if no-one reads my posts (although it’s always lovely to hear when people have!) but the discipline of sitting and gathering my thoughts and reflecting on where we are is in itself extremely helpful. For us, total zero waste – like total self-sufficiency – is not a viable target, but working bit by bit to a point as close as possible is an interesting, rewarding and thought-provoking process. Here, then, are the recent steps we have taken along this fascinating path . . .

Making soap is a relatively new activity for me and following the success of my first attempts I decided to try and create a hand soap that was slightly more complicated and interesting than my original basic ‘kitchen cupboard’ soaps. It would be very easy to get sucked into the fascinating world of soap-making, there is so much creativity and possibility out there! However, I am adamant about not going down the route of synthetic colourants or fragrances, no matter how beautiful or tempting they may seem; it’s natural all the way for me.

Calendula has long been recognised for its healing qualities in skin care; it’s also one of my favourite flowers and we are lucky enough to be blessed with a year-round jungle of it here so picking a few flowers in the spring sunshine and setting the petals to dry was really no hardship. This is one of the few dried flowers that retains its vibrant colour in soap.

The second new ingredient I chose for this batch was saffron, also renowned for its beneficial skincare qualities. Much used in Spanish cooking, it is widely available and a fraction of the cost in the UK so didn’t seem too much of an indulgence. Mixed in powder form with my blend of olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and almond oil it also added natural colour so the cured soaps should be a soft yellow. Once the calendula petals had been added along with sweet orange essential oil, the batter looked and smelt good enough to eat!

The finished soaps are now curing on a baking rack, currently the sweet colour of primroses; I am turning them daily and watching with interest to see how (or if) they change in the coming weeks.

Sticking with soap and I have to say that my homemade solid shampoo bars have been something of a revelation. They lather beautifully in our soft spring water and double as a body wash in the shower so are a super-efficient idea. I was expecting some kind of ‘transition’ phase when we started to use them – even my very green and gentle shampoo of choice contains some of those dreaded oil-stripping surfactants – but there has been no problem whatsoever. Obviously, a soap-based shampoo has a higher pH so I use a leave-in final rinse of apple cider vinegar in warm water to balance that. Taking that idea one step further, the fresh new growth on our perennial herbs has provided the perfect ingredient for a herbal hair rinse which couldn’t be easier to make: lavender, sage and rosemary simmered gently in water for an hour, left to cool naturally then strained and stored in the fridge. For each hair wash, I simply decant a small amount, add the vinegar and warm water to take off the chill, then rinse through as many times as I can. The result? Soft, shiny hair that smells pleasantly and faintly herbal (not of vinegar at all!) and stays looking clean and bouncy for several days between washes. Even better, we no longer have bottles of shower gel, shampoo or conditioner in the shower; one bar each of soap and shampoo does the trick. All natural, no harsh chemicals, no packaging. So far, so good.

The next item to try on my list of homemade toiletries was deodorant. Now this is a bit of a tricky one, isn’t it? I have no desire to smell of the harsh synthetic scents that are so prevalent these days and given I spend most of my time pottering about our mountain patch, slapping on deodorant isn’t always necessary . . . but when I do venture into public, I wouldn’t want to offend other people with a pong, no matter how ‘natural!’ Having done a fair bit of research, I opted for a very simple recipe using melted coconut oil mixed with bicarbonate of soda, arrowroot (cornflour is an alternative) and lemon and sweet orange essential oils.

My biggest concern over this was the bicarb. When it comes to deodorising and cleaning everything from teeth to toilets, it’s an amazing substance but there is a danger of assuming that everything ‘natural’ is good and that’s not true. Let’s face it, snake venom is natural but I wouldn’t want it in my bloodstream. The problem with bicarbonate of soda is that it is a powerful alkali which may not necessarily make it a sensible thing to be applying to skin. I read and re-read every article I could find, mulling over the pros and cons; it seems that both extremes of the argument (use it for everything vs. don’t touch it with a barge pole) can be backed up by some pretty complex chemistry and strong emotional arguments. In the end, I decided a dose of pragmatism was called for. I don’t have sensitive skin so I was happy to give it a go, but jiggled the proportions of ingredients around to reduce the bicarb by half. The result, once the mixture had set, was a soft solid that will keep happily for several months in a jar. It is easy to use – just rub a pea-sized amount on with a finger and feels really lovely, far nicer than any other kind of deodorant I’ve used. The big question, of course, is does it work? Well, here is the bit I have to admit I doubted right from the start but yes, it works brilliantly. Considering I’ve been putting it through some fairly serious 10k runs and heavy gardening in warm weather, I am amazed at how it stands up. Wow! It goes without saying that I shall watch for any adverse reaction but in the meantime I’m a convert – and a sweet, citrus-scented one at that!

Moving swiftly from smells to snacks. We’re not naturally snackers as we find three square meals a day of good wholesome food keeps us going well, but occasionally – especially on days involving long or arduous runs – there is a need for a small top-up. Dried kiwi has proved a real success and definitely something I shall be making again next season. They may be a bit of an acquired taste but I love that first tangy sweet-sour whack of flavour like bitter sherbet; a few slices are enough for a fulfilling snack packed with fibre and potassium and they are great for carrying on a long walk. Although our walnut harvest was relatively poor last year, we still have several kilos in store and I love to spend a few minutes each week shelling enough to keep in the kitchen for cooking, sprinkling on breakfasts and grazing in those occasional between-meals tummy rumbling moments. Two healthy snacks, no food miles, zero packaging and totally free. How good is that?

Of course, it’s always great to try new things and as we both love cooking, new recipe ideas are always welcome. We’ve started experimenting with making our own runners’ energy bars, ones that are packed with energy and goodness but without the inevitable high sugar content, additives, preservatives and E-numbers (not to mention excessive packaging) so common in bought ones. In a way, this is a simple exercise in lining up all the different kinds of seeds we have in the cupboard, combining them with something gloopy and baking until crisp. So for our first attempt, a mix of sunflower, pumpkin, sesame and chia seed together with milled linseed and dried goji berries, stuck together with honey, olive oil and a dash of soy sauce. The cooked bars were a bit crumblier than we’d hoped for but fantastically tasty and certainly the perfect post-run booster food. We need to keep playing about with recipes and experimenting with different ingredients; mmm, that will be tough, then!

I think an essential part of our approach to green living is to revisit different things regularly and look at ways in which we can improve them, nudging forward a bit at a time. Take dish washing, for example. We don’t have a dishwasher so everything is washed and dried by hand. During the months when The Beast is lit, we heat all our dish water on the hob; to save wasting water and fuel, we never fill a bowl just to wash a couple of things but let the dirty crockery mount up through the day for one big washing up event in the evening. (Sometimes, we just need to shift our perspective about things: this is not slobby behaviour, it’s green. ) When we are here on our own, we simply cold rinse the same two coffee mugs and re-use them throughout the day – and we haven’t died from doing that yet. Making my own washing-up liquid is something I want to try but for now we use eco-brands, preferably in refillable bottles. Our water is so soft that a 950ml bottle like the one below lasts us six months, even when it’s also used in homemade cleaning potions. For some time now I’ve been crocheting cotton dishcloths which last for ages and can be thrown through the laundry on a regular basis, then composted when they finally give up the ghost. So, what could we do better? Well, one thing I certainly wanted to remove from our lives was scourers made of that nasty scrubby plasticky stuff but how to replace them with something effective? I’ve tried making various knitted scrubbies but nothing seemed to work so in the end the decision was to invest in a couple of wooden brushes which, fingers crossed, should last us for years. That’s another little box ticked.

I’ve been making and using my own washing powder very happily for some months now but now I find there is a bit of a fly in the ointment. I’ve read several articles recently urging people not to do this on any account (it’s a bit like the whole bicarb argument – this green living / zero waste business is tricky stuff sometimes.) The argument is based on the fact that modern washing machines and modern textile fibres are all designed to be used with detergents. Soap-based cleaners can cause a build-up of scum which could ultimately wreck a machine and obviously, having to replace a perfectly serviceable machine before necessary is not remotely green. Also, soap doesn’t clean laundry properly and to prove the point, there are any amount of horror photos of dirty water left behind after so-called clean laundry has been ‘stripped out’ with powerful mineral cleaners. Okay, time for some balanced thinking once again. For every writer standing against homemade laundry powder, there are plenty claiming to have used it for many years without a single machine issue; there are also plenty of people who have stripped out detergent-washed laundry and been left with grotty water, too. As washing soda is the key ingredient of homemade laundry powder, I have increased the proportion in my recipe and reduced the soap; I always fill the fabric conditioner dispenser with white vinegar which it’s claimed helps to stop the scum and as an extra precaution, I am using an eco-detergent every few washes. Not perfect, but I’m hoping it’s a sensible compromise.

Spring clean: winter blankets gently washed in homemade laundry powder drying in the sunshine.

One of the best things I’ve discovered recently is organic bamboo kitchen roll. We don’t use paper kitchen roll often and certainly never for mopping up spillages (a cloth does the job just fine) but there are certain cooking processes and some of my messier pastimes where it’s useful stuff to have around – and it is at least compostable. The bamboo roll, however, takes things to a new level: simply tear off a square, use it for whatever . . . then wash it and use it again . . . and again . . . and again. In fact, each square can go through the laundry as many as 80 times, can be bleached, too, if necessary and eventually finishes up on the compost heap like paper. After the first wash, the fabric becomes very soft and almost fluffy; it’s delightful stuff and I’ve already found far more uses for it than imagined. (The bowl of soap batter above is sitting on a bamboo square.) Our roll of 20 sheets will last us many, many years. What an inspired idea.

Staying with bamboo, I have also recently bought bamboo toothbrushes to try. They are one of those things that seem to attract Marmitesque reviews (love or loathe) so I’m interested to see how we get on with them. I love the fact they have their own leaf pattern for easy identification and I can already see a further life for them as row markers in the garden once their dental duties are done. Now I do love an idea like that!

One of our biggest resolutions on the path to zero waste is to use the materials and resources we already have as much as possible rather than buying new. In this vein, Roger has been demolishing an ugly and tumbledown brick wall and replacing it with a gate he has made from wood left over from the house renovation. Not only has it made access to the field so much simpler (what, no more scrambling over a wall?) but it looks far smarter, has opened up the view from the garden and put some spare materials to very good use.

I have used up my final scraps of curtain lining fabric to make another batch of food storage bags – how did we ever live without them, they are such useful things? I also turned the last two patchworking fat squares in my box of bits into a wash bag to take when we’re travelling. The rather nasty plastic lining of our last one crumbled into pieces many years ago and since then we’ve been using random scruffy plastic bags stuffed into a suitcase. The bag was made in minutes, finished with a scrap of satin ribbon as a drawstring and then sprayed with waterproofer; I’m hopeful it will last us for many years and it’s certainly an improvement on our current system!

Natural toiletries for the new wash bag: deodorant in jar, toothpowder in bicarbonate pot, solid hand / foot lotion and solid shampoo bar in muslin square, reusable razor, bamboo toothbrushes.

Having resolved not to buy any new yarn, I’m enjoying planning my woolly activities around what I already have, whether commercially-produced yarns or fleece to spin myself. Spinning, dyeing and knitting from scratch takes a long time but there is such pleasure and satisfaction in working through the whole process, especially if I have someone else in mind for the finished article. A skein of Blue-Faced Leicester wool spun with kid mohair and dyed with ready-mixed colours left over from the last project brought to mind a cottage garden of delphiniums and clematis, granny’s bonnets and roses . . . perfect for the summer birthday gift had I planned. I’m not a fan of circular needles and my lace knitting is painfully slow but that’s all part of the process . . . there is no rush, just the simple delight of creating something unique from scratch for someone I love.

I’m also working my way slowly through the scraps of yarn left over from various blanket projects and the pile of little crocheted squares is mounting up steadily. I still have no real final plan – there will certainly be enough for a blanket – but it’s good to see those little bits and pieces being put to good use.

So, on we go, taking small footsteps along this tricky path. We still have such a long way to travel and I know it won’t all be easy; the next few ideas to try are already in the pipeline and the coming weeks will see how well they pan out. It’s easy to feel despondent sometimes, despair even, especially looking at the wider world and the problems too mighty for us to tackle alone. However, taking a walk through the woods down to the river yesterday, I paused to enjoy the moment: the trees hazed with fresh new spring growth, clouds of butterflies playing chase in the sunshine, the first swallows wheeling and chattering overhead, the raucous birdsong echoing, it seemed, from every branch.

Yes, this is why we do it, this is what it’s for . . . the hope that in small green footsteps we reduce our giant footprint and leave a beautiful and sustainable world for our precious grandchildren. Surely that’s a future worth fighting for, however imperfectly?

The more of less

 “If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness. ” 

The Dalai Lama

I think that ‘less is more’ is likely to be our motto for life this year. Take this blog, for example. I love blogging but this is the first post I have written for almost a month: less writing means more living. With the house renovation practically done, we can spend less time indoors and more time outside where we both prefer to be. Fewer planned visits to the UK will mean more time to explore Spain, both near and far. Fewer trips to source building materials or cart rubbish away means more time to simply ‘be’ at home, enjoying the beauty of this special place in which we live.

Living simply, however, doesn’t mean living lazily, and the first few weeks of the new year have seen us busy in so many ways. It has been wonderful to finally turn our attention to the lengthy list of outdoor projects that has been waiting in the wings for so long and – up until this week – the weather has been warm and dry and fully conducive to getting out there. One of the very first jobs I did when we moved here was remove hundreds of plastic bottles that had been tied to the fence at the end of the vegetable patch: goodness, that seems like a lifetime ago now! At long last, we have replaced the fence, taking in a couple of metres of field for extra planting space as we went. I suppose we should be thankful that there were no bedsteads involved this time but it was the usual mess of metal props, mesh and netting knitted together with endless strands of barbed wire, all on an impossibly steep slope.

There is much to do at this end of the garden, including tidying up the neglected horreo, but it’s amazing how a new fence has already changed the outlook and smartened things up. I’m planning to plant globe artichokes raised from seed inside the fence; if they grow half as well as our current plant, they should make a handsome hedge of silvery blue-green fronds. Beats plastic bottles in my book!

Our farmer friend Jairo delivered a huge trailerload of muck so we spent a couple of afternoons shifting it by hand to make a goodly pile in both vegetable patches, where it will rot down over summer into a pile of gorgeousness ready for spreading in autumn. Combined with homemade compost it is a rich, natural feed for our soil, the very stuff of gardening dreams. We’ve been hauling logs, too; how incredible that even in the depths of January, we are still putting more into the log shed than we are burning. I like that. The seating area on the courtyard is one of our most-used places, a favourite ‘room’ where we love to take a coffee break, eat meals or sit and watch the sunset. We’ve managed this far with the ugly and horrendously uneven concrete surface but at last plans are afoot for a serious makeover: a stone surround filled with building rubble to level everything, then covered in some huge stylish slates we saved from the old roof. Blimey, we won’t know ourselves!

Freed from the huge burden of house renovation carpentry, Roger has been enjoying himself with some more interesting projects. Having had to admit that our trusty old blue bench is literally on its last legs and really only held together by the paint, we decided it was time to replace it before there was a nasty accident (I hate the idea of our lovely old neighbour toppling off a rotten seat as he stops to catch his breath there). The old bench has been moved to a little-used corner (it’s still safe for one person if you know exactly where to place your behind!) and meanwhile, Roger has fashioned a new version from the wooden base of a single futon we have had for 25 years. With a lick of that Peacock Blue, it’s just the job . . . now all we need is the sunshine back. (To the left of the wall, you can see the river raging down the valley in full spate after 24 hours of torrential rain.)

Bits of planks left over from making the stairs have been fashioned into smooth, circular pot stands; these are just perfect for our ‘stove to table’ approach to cooking and are a welcome replacement for our disgracefully shoddy table mats. Treated with a food-safe oil, I’ve found they also make nifty little chopping boards.

Now, let me tell you about that rather lovely paring knife . . . a recent and rare indulgence I’m happy to own up to. It was made by my nephew Harry https://www.facebook.com/GoughCutlery/ who, for several years, has been perfecting the art of creating bespoke cutlery and believe me, what he doesn’t know about metallurgy isn’t worth knowing. I fell in love with this beautifully-crafted creation of stainless steel and recycled laburnum (fond memories of our hedges in Wales which had been planted with laburnum for tool handles), its size, shape and weight are just right for me and it is so sharp I swear you could slice air with it. There is something so satisfying using a piece of equipment like this that has been handmade with such care and attention, the application of an ancient art to modern living. Looked after properly and sharpened on a leather strop, it will probably last us for ever. Thank you, Harry!

So, after two months of virtual drought which has seen me watering pots and troughs to keep everything alive, nature is paying her debt with more water than we know what to do with. No problem, the garden was greatly in need and I have had plenty of indoor things to keep me busy. As cloth food storage bags and cotton hankies have been such a roaring success, I have sewn more of both. I finally dug out my dyeing equipment and dyed a skein of laceweight Merino for a gift; I’d forgotten just how much fun and how satisfying the dyeing process is.

Having sorted through my treasures in the attic, I am resolved to spinning far more this year as there is still quite a stash of fleece up there waiting to become socks (or other woolly delights). I’ve knitted a new pair of socks for Roger – having made them for practically everyone else last year, I thought it was about time! – and crocheted an intricate bohemian scarf as a birthday present. Gift wrap is such an environmental nightmare that I prefer to use brown paper which can at least be recycled or composted but it is a bit – well – brown. I flirted with the idea of printing with acrylic paint to jazz it up a bit but in the end I decided scrap yarn and old buttons were more my thing.

On the subject of scrap yarn, I’ve already made a patchwork blanket from leftovers but still seem to have oodles of colourful possibility left. I’m having a ball turning the more neutral colours into tiny finger puppets for little fingers; my Christmas gift to Ben, William and Evan is the promise of a regular parcel of ‘Puppet Post’ throughout the year. They are great fun but so fiddly! I’m enjoying evenings in front of the fire, rippling away at the ‘Cottage’ crochet blanket I bought with a birthday voucher last year but when it’s finished, there will be yet more spare wool . . . so inevitably, another patchwork event is on the cards. This time, solid three-round granny squares which take only four grams of yarn each which means I can use the tiniest scraps; this is the perfect pick up / put down project which will be good to take on my travels, too. It really has to be the most clueless of all my blanket projects so far: I have no idea what shape or size it will be as I have no idea how many squares I will end up with. Random or planned colour pattern? Joining? Border? No rush.

We kept free-range hens for over twenty years and I have to confess to missing a few about the place, I love their comic antics and, of course, the bounty of fresh, free-range eggs. We are lucky to have a regular supply from our neighbours but when they don’t have a surplus, I have started buying them from https://pazodevilane.com/en/, a Galician company whose philosophy I love.

The hens range freely in pastures just as ours did; their eggs are deep brown and speckled with tough shells and huge golden yolks and are some of the best we’ve ever eaten. They come ungraded (but with a minimum weight) in a sturdy cardboard box which is designed to be re-used; every year, the company asks customers to send ideas for their use and for every idea submitted, a tree is planted. This is definitely my kind of thing so I’m hoping that turning a box into a soap mould will be worthy of a new tree for future hens to scratch under.

The soap in question was actually my first attempt at solid shampoo using locally-sourced ingredients plus some goodies from https://www.thesoapery.co.uk/ : olive, coconut, castor and avocado oils, shea butter, tea tree and lavender essential oils. It was fascinating to observe a different set of ingredients undergoing the saponification process; the resultant bars are silky and herbal and hardening nicely . . . and when fully cured, I have just the box to store them in!

Less complicated than soap, I’ve also made solid hand lotion bars by melting the beeswax I purified before Christmas with coconut oil, shea butter and cocoa butter. Warmed gently between my hands, the bar melts into a rich, unctuous cream which feels and smells wonderful and can double as a lip balm. I’ve put one in an old Lush tin to carry in my handbag, and an empty gift tea tin is perfect for storing the rest until needed.

Eucalyptus forests and their processing factories are a hot environmental issue here and understandably so. The bright side for us, however, is a ready supply of leaves, bark and wood which we can put to good use in many ways.

What a simple pleasure it was to wander through our dripping woodland under my brolly this week to pick a handful of glaucous leaves, spicy scented and sparkling with raindrops. Using a recipe from James Wong’s Grow Your Own Drugs, I heated the leaves gently in almond oil with pine resin, cinnamon and cloves – mmm, the house smelt wonderful.

This would make a splendid winter bath oil, if only we had a bath! No problem, it’s just as good stirred into a basin of hot washing water, sprinkled onto a hanky or a steaming bowl as a decongestant or used as a body and massage oil, lovely on aching muscles after a hard run. It is so deliciously aromatic that I’m also tempted to try it in a batch of soap . . .

Second only to the ubiquitous eucalyptus, kiwis are another vigorous import whose exuberance rewards us with several month’s worth (and what feels like several tonnes) of fruit. Late February generally sees the end of our fresh supply so this week I’ve been experimenting with drying them to keep as a healthy snack; I’m thinking they would be particularly good to carry on long walks. Without a dehydrator or the desire to run an electric oven on low for several hours, it’s a game of chance played out on top of The Beast but so far, so good. Now it’s just a case of beating the blackbirds to the remaining fruit.

As part of our continuing efforts towards zero waste, this year I’ve decided to do things differently where recycling is concerned. We normally store our recycling in the underhouse barn then, every few weeks, load it into the car and deposit it as part of a trip out to do other things. No more. This year, I’m taking personal responsibility for carrying it weekly down to the village recycling point which is half a mile from home. There are three reasons behind my decision. First, Roger has spent several hours clearing the junk (yet another pile belonging to the former owner plus our own post-renovation stuff) from under the house, creating a clean, wide-open, useful space; it just no longer seems right to be met at the door by a mountain of recycling. Second, it’s a nice little jaunt in the fresh air which rings the changes from running and yoga, gives me the chance to chat with neighbours and provides a decent workout pulling myself back up the cruelly steep hill home. Third – and most important – by dealing with our recycling in amounts that I can comfortably carry, I’m hoping to shift the focus from collecting to connecting, from mindlessness to mindfulness. Recycling is fine but reducing is better and I’m on a mission to look for more ways where we can do just that. How gratifying that the very first week suggested a possibility . . .

Doing the recycling . . . spot my red coat between the bins!

Bundling up the plastic waste ready for my Recycling Ramble, I quickly realised what a lot of yogurt we eat. It’s little wonder that with such an abundance of lush pastureland, Asturias produces dairy foods of the highest quality and we are only too happy to indulge in thick and creamy local Greek-style yogurt on an almost daily basis . . . but I only had to look at the pile of plastic packaging to realise Something Had To Be Done. Cue my first ever go at making yogurt, not without a certain sense of trepidation because if I am totally honest, I expected to produce an unpleasantly runny, acidic substance that neither of us would really like. Well, nothing ventured and all that.

The process was ridiculously simple: after scalding the modest pile of equipment with boiling water, I warmed fresh whole milk to body temperature, poured it into a kilner jar, stirred in a couple of tablespoons of yogurt (not our usual one as there was no indication that it contained live cultures so I opted for one of those ‘probiotic’ thingies instead), covered the jar in a pile of towels and snuggled it up next to The Beast overnight.

Wow, but how I smiled next morning to find a jar full of thick, sublime deliciousness!

Shameless in my quest for the true Greek-style effect, I turned the lot into a colander lined with a clean tea towel and let some of the whey drain off; oh my goodness, I could die happy eating this stuff, it is so thick and fresh and clean and mild and divinely yummy.

I shall keep a bit back for a new starter which means no more plastic pots and lids, just one extra milk bottle per shop and homemade yogurt for ever. Happy, happy day. By the way, the whey didn’t go to waste, either; it’s a good food with many uses, so Roger whacked it into his spelt and seed sourdough, making a scrumptious loaf to accompany squash and chilli soup served with chestnut croutons for our dinner. Not a shred of recycling (just composting) in that homegrown, home-cooked little lot, just great wealth and pleasure from living simply with less . . . and for us, that’s what it’s all about! 🙂

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! 🙂

Summer’s end

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wandering and wondering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The wisdom of work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verbena bonariensis that has popped up amongst the dahlias.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Muses and mittens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Signing off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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