High on a mountain, a Lonely Goat heard . . .

Yes, I am round. Yes, I am slow. Yes, I run as though my legs are tied together at the knees. But I am running. And that is all that matters.

John Bingham

There’s a bewitching, twitchy feeling here this week, something almost crackly and palpable in the air like the electric storms that brewed here after two days of oppressively high heat. It’s like that moment when you’ve been hoping for good news but hardly dare listen just in case it’s the opposite, that instant when you dare to believe – hopefully, nervously – that there really is light at the end of the tunnel. A corner has been turned and in our valley, it feels like the collective release of a breath held for too long.

After seven difficult, anxious and emotional weeks, Spain has taken its first tentative steps along the phased pathway to lifting lockdown. There is no complacency here; the Asturian president, Adrián Barbón, has said it must be done with surgical precision and any hint of increasing infections or a second spike will see a swift return to us being back en casa. It will take a minimum of eight weeks at best but we have already been warned that we might not be able to leave Asturias until September. Vicky and her family will not be coming to stay here later this month and our trip in June to the UK for family celebrations then Norway to visit Sam and Adrienne are most definitely off, while the journey to my brother’s August wedding hangs in the balance. Disappointed and sad? Of course, but so be it; we all have to do our bit to keep ourselves and others safe. I realise this is part of the necessary adjustment we need to make towards accepting a ‘new normal’ whether we like it or not.

Meanwhile, back to this week and the joyful news that for the first time in 50 days, we were allowed out for exercise. There are restrictions in place for settlements with more than 5 000 inhabitants but in rural areas such as ours we can run or cycle any time between 6am and 11pm and can go as far as we like providing we don’t leave Valdés, the municipality in which we live. Conversely – and somewhat bizarrely- if we choose to go for a walk, we can’t wander any further than a kilometre from home. Running it is, then.

It was actually 51 days since I had last run, training in torrential rain for a 10k race that never happened. In the interim, I have at least been able to run in the barn (which is more than most of our running friends here could do) but it has been far from pleasant; the idea of being allowed out on the open road once again had me feeling slightly giddy, even a bit nervous if I’m honest. Still, Asturias does mornings rather well so how could I resisit such temptation?

Now, regular readers will be well aware of my somewhat turbulent relationship with running; I persist with it because I recognise the benefits it brings to my health and wellbeing and I always feel better for doing it . . . but, I’ve never quite been able to love it. Bit of a shock, then, if I am completely honest and admit that during the weeks of running deprivation, I actually missed it. Yes, truly. I did. I tried hard not to, obviously; I did my goldfish thing in the barn, followed a fantastic new yoga course and even started strength training with weights, something quite different and very challenging for me. I’m not sure whether I’m building impressive muscles but something must be happening because I now find I can use the most important of basic man tools without needing the man to go with it!

I’ve learnt that it’s possible to exercise and keep reasonably fit in straitened circumstances and I’m grateful for how much I was able to do, but the bottom line is this: there’s nothing quite so liberating as being out in the fresh air, footloose and fancy-free and drinking in the beautiful scenery around me (albeit it in an attempt to divert my attention away from the struggle of moving my body through space at something very loosely related to the idea of ‘speed’). Social distancing still applies of course, so I passed walking neighbours at broomstick distance . . . but what sheer joy, what huge beaming smiles, what indescribable bubbly happiness at seeing and greeting each other once again! We were like captive birds released from a cage, soaring skywards on ecstatic wings in blissful, unfettered freedom. Those were possibly the sweetest six kilometres of my life.

One of the benefits of having time to think more about running whilst not actually doing any is that I finally took the plunge and did something I’ve been considering for a while: I’ve joined the Lonely Goat Running Club. https://lonelygoat.com/ In truth, there wasn’t really any ‘plunge’ involved as I think it is a brilliant concept which, like Parkrun, is designed to make running accessible and enjoyable for anyone. Everyone, in fact. The idea is simple: it’s a recognised running club with affiliation to England Athletics available but not compulsory, and if like me, you opt not to register for affiliation, the club is totally free to join. There are no club meetings, no training sessions, no coaches, no championships, no league tables, nada. So what, you may well be asking, is the point?

Well, I believe it has filled a huge vacuum by providing a platform for mutual help and support for runners like myself who – for whatever reason – don’t want to join an orthodox club. The running scene in Asturias is fantastic and I enter occasional races to be part of that friendly and inspiring community and to challenge myself with personal goals (um . . . generally to arrive at the finishing line at some point, preferably on my feet) which give me the impetus to train.

However, I have struggled from the very beginning with the fact that the local runners are so amazingly speedy and I am terribly slow. While I am still wrestling with the demon that is my inability to master a sub-hour 10k, the other ladies in my age group breeze it in 50 minutes or under without so much as breaking into a sweat. It can be hard to keep going and keep smiling and yes, I know it’s the taking part and all that jazz that matters, but actually tight cut-off times matter too, especially if it means the threat of having to walk back to the start after being disqualified as a slowbie. So far I’ve just managed to scrape through – and I really, really mean scrape as in by a few seconds – but it’s tough. Roger is massively supportive and patient and I couldn’t do it without him but he’s a brilliant athlete and I’m not, so in the Lonely Goat RC I think I’ve found a huge network of running soul mates who feel my pain completely because they’re feeling it, too.

There is a social media chat forum which currently has over 17 000 (!) members; you don’t have to join it if you don’t want to and the idea is that if you do, then you dip in and out now and then rather than be a slave to everyone’s posts. There are no experts or show-offs or anybody trying to score points, just a group of incredible people getting out to run despite whatever obstacles are thrown in their way. It’s all about friendship and encouragement, shared elation and commiseration, about people finding a little bit of time in their busy lives to be decent human beings towards one another. How amazing and inspiring is that? When I posted a couple of photos from my first run after lockdown, I was overwhelmed to receive more than 700 likes and almost 70 comments from people who simply wanted to share my joy. We might run as Lonely Goats but we are very definitely not alone. Oh, and I was chuffed to find there is a little herd in Spain, too!

Like affiliation and chat group membership, there is no onus to buy a club strip, either, but I liked the idea of doing at least something to support the organisation so I have bought a vest (which I was delighted to find had been made from 100% recycled polyester). I had a big decision to make over badge colour, with blue, green, purple, pink and yellow on offer. What should I go for? Well, in the end I plumped for purple, partly with Jenny Joseph’s wonderful ‘Warning’ poem in mind (not that I think I am an old woman just yet) but mostly because I suspect Annie would never have forgiven me if I’d gone for anything else!

There’s a lot of friendly Goat banter about the different colours but they don’t actually mean a thing: whichever colour you choose, it’s still one big team. I wore my new vest out for that first run; I stood in the lane on our mountainside and heard the rhythmic scratching of crickets and the screeching of swifts in the valley below and the nervous beating of my heart; I took in an enormous breath of rose-scented air, smiled to myself then launched myself like a crazy child down the steep slope. It felt like I was part of something good.

The 10k race I was training for on the 21st March has been moved to the 20th June; of course, there’s every chance it won’t be allowed to go ahead but I’m training for it anyway. If and when it happens, I shall wear my Lonely Goat vest with pride and an immense feeling of gratitude that I am alive and healthy and able to run through the stunning Asturian landscape with a wonderful bunch of equally daft like-minded people . . . and you know what? I won’t be giving that wretched sub-hour goal a single thought. Not one. 🙂

Chasing rainbows

¿Dónde termina el arco iris, en tu alma o en el horizonte? (Where does the rainbow end, in your soul or on the horizon?)

Pablo Neruda, The Book of Questions

I know at times my attitude has been considered a bit un-PC but I believe children need to be exposed to fresh air and sunlight, to be allowed to get wet and muddy, to climb trees, build dens and poke about in ponds and streams. Our bunch spent many happy days making foul-smelling potions in beach buckets, gathering windfall apples in a toy wheelbarrow and bringing me posies of stemless flowers. They chased butterflies, ‘rescued’ worms and collected snails. They wandered and wondered.

They were helping out in the garden before they could walk and have all grown up with a deep understanding and appreciation of where fresh, wholesome food comes from and how flowers are great for wildlife and good for the soul. Most importantly, they were allowed – encouraged, even – to take risks (under supervision, of course). They climbed trees, scrambled up rocks, waded into water, looked over the edge of cliffs, used knives, handled fire, poked their noses into beehives. I know many people would disagree with me but I believe children need to be allowed to take risks: how else do they learn to understand how to deal with danger, how to become confident, courageous, resilient beings?

This is something I’ve been mulling over many times during the last few weeks. For us in total lockdown, a regular stream of photos and video clips of our grandchildren spending days of gorgeous weather playing outside – not to mention celebrating a birthday – have been a delight; it has brought many smiles to our faces to see their busyness and mischief in full sail. In complete contrast, I have felt extremely sad and frustrated for the millions of Spanish children who have not been quite so lucky, shut in the confines of urban apartments for six long weeks. What a blessed relief for them to have been granted at least a small freedom in recent days, allowed out with one adult for one hour and no more than one kilometre from home. Parks and playgrounds remain firmly closed but it’s a welcome start. For us oldies, too, there is a glimmer of hope with the tantalising possibility of a relaxing of the rules around walking and sport to come at the weekend. It will be over 50 days since I last ran outdoors properly, training in torrential rain for a 10k race that never happened. I have been grateful that, unlike so many of our Spanish running friends, I have at least had a barn to run in but the idea of finally being released from what I’ve come to think of as ‘goldfish bowl syndrome’ fills me with great joy. The open road will never have seemed so sweet!

Most children in the UK haven’t been locked down as tightly as their Spanish counterparts but for many, the rainbow has become a central symbol of this strange and unprecedented time in their lives. I love rainbows and have always been fascinated by their fleeting beauty. One of the most incredible moments of my life was standing in the centre of a circular rainbow at the Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland; I was so entranced at being completely encircled by such an ephemeral natural wonder that I didn’t realised just how drenched I was getting! It’s not magic but pure science, of course; nonetheless, I find myself as captivated by the refraction, reflection and dispersion of light through water droplets – be it arcing across the sky, dancing around waterfalls and breaking waves or caught in a soap bubble or a glass of water – as much now as when I was a child.

Given the choice, I would take sunshine over rain most days but I always feel a sense of gratitude for the gift of rainfall, so desperately missed and longed for in other places. There is a reason why Asturias is so green and lush! We seldom let wet weather spoil our activities so on a day this week that brought us everything from the finest drizzle to torrential downpours, I headed out into the garden with the camera to seek a rainbow. Not a real one – no chance of that when the cloud rolls moodily across the mountains – but a spectrum of flowers to lift the gloom.

Mmm, where to start? Actually, I had no problem with that one.

Orange offered me several possibilities, in particular the nasturtiums flaunting their jaunty faces in every corner or the orange calendula that have mysteriously appeared amongst their yellow companions for the first time this year. In the end, though, I plumped for the Californian poppies which have been releasing satin petals from their tight cones of buds in bright starbursts all week.

For yellow, my old friends the aforementioned calendula or pot marigold, here having set themselves rather artistically against a purple haze of sage flowers.

Green? Choices, choices. In the end, it just had to be the fresh leaves on the kiwi.

When it came to blue, I didn’t even hesitate: enter borage, one of my very favourite flowers.

Indigo posed a bit of a problem when I found I just couldn’t choose between two strong candidates, cerinthe and passion flower. Time to toss a coin? No, indulge me with this one, please: they’re both here. Well, how could they not be?

As for violet, I was spoilt for choice. Should it be clematis, honesty, allium, salsify? No, I’ll settle for granny’s bonnets.

Well, it was a rainbow of sorts!

In the same way as I feel the prevailing quiet, clear air is amplifying the sounds of nature around us at the moment, so I am completely convinced that rainfall heightens the senses in other ways. It smells so wonderful outside: the deep, spicy bass notes of pine and eucalyptus wafting down from the woods mingling with that evocative sharp, herbal tang of cut grass and woven through with the heady perfume of hundreds and hundreds of flowers. It might be wet, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m in a captivating paradise.

Wet days seem to enhance the colour in the garden, too, giving a marked depth and intensity that is so often washed out by bright sunlight.

The Spanish for ‘rainbow’ – arco iris – is named after Iris, the rainbow goddess and messenger of Greek mythology. In my Spanish studies this week, I have been translating an article from a tourist board blog about places of interest in Asturias which are steeped in myth and legend, some of which we have already visited, others which I hope we will be able to explore in the so-called ‘new normal’ of the future. Now I am happy to admit that a working knowledge of las xanas (water nymphs) or el cuélebre (a giant winged serpent) is unlikely to be of much use when we need to have the car serviced or visit the dentist, but for me there is as much magic in the descriptive language as in the stories themselves. We can’t hope to recreate a crystal waterfall hidden deep within a bosky glade or the explosive snorts of coastal bufones sending salty spray skywards, but there is still enchantment to be found in our rain-spattered patch. We only have to look.

What contrast there is between the sweet simplicity of raindrops caught on leaves . . .

. . . and the bold, architectural sweep of cardoons and globe artichokes.

How is it possible that these tiny nubs of silvery velvet will swell into the luscious bounty of summer peaches?

How can I describe the striking colours and textures unfolding from walnut and chestnut and oak, the startling newness of it all?

Come into the Enchanted Garden. If I were a small child once again with an unshakeable belief in the Little People, then this surely is where I would seek them!

There are discoveries to be made here and treasures to uncover, some almost too strange to be true.

Ah, perhaps those Asturian fairy tales have gone to my head. After all, despite how it might seem, I’m not really an airy-fairy, unicorn-riding, New Age granny. Honest! Life goes on here for us as normally as possible under lockdown; there is still a home to run, a garden to tend, clothes to launder, meals to prepare, tax forms to fill out and bills to pay. We are practical, pragmatic people with plenty to be doing . . . but even so, I think everyone needs to chase rainbows now and again. Don’t you? 🙂

The flight of the bumblebee

Our valley is a tranquil spot at the best of times but in these unusual circumstances of minimal traffic on the roads and no planes overhead, it is exceptionally and blissfully peaceful. In The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk describes how in modern society, over 90% of the noise that surrounds us in our daily lives is man-made, yet for prehistoric peoples the opposite was true. Now I am not expecting to see a woolly mammoth come strolling down the lane anytine soon but – putting the current grave circumstances aside – how extraordinary it is to experience an environment overwhelmingly dominated by natural sounds.

Of course, there is the usual cacophony of cockerels and cowbells punctuated by short bursts of village activity; after all, despite most of Spanish society remaining in total lockdown, the farming and smallholding year must continue if starvation isn’t to be the next problem. Still, it is the wilder sounds that prevail with a crystal clarity, as though nature’s crackly radio has at last been fine-tuned to perfection. I am a willing audience.

The river snakes its way across the valley floor below us in a constant ripple of energy, bubbling and chattering over boulders as if it were still a youthful mountain stream, but now it is somehow amplified to a level that suggests the rush and drop of a weir or hidden waterfall where there is neither. Breezes susurrate and sigh across the mountainsides, stippling the light and ruffling the trees like a huge invisible hand pulled through soft, silvery grasses.

It is no surprise that the birds hold centre stage from dawn to dusk, their rousing symphony of harmony and counterpoint played out against the rhythmic ostinato of cuckoos and crickets. In this clear air there is a fresh magic to their music, startling surprises in the familiar like a bright new tapestry woven from old threads.

It’s not just their songs, either. How incredible to notice the rigid wingbeats of a crow flapping languorously overhead, the slick torpedo whoosh of a sparrowhawk perforating the air like a dart, the fragile sigh of a wren alighting on a tremulous twig. There’s nothing new about any of these sounds . . . but have I ever truly heard them before? By day, the stags’ guttural coughs echo across the meadows and at night, the tawny owls practise their haunting call-and-response under vaulted skies. There’s no missing those raucous renditions but who’d believe the soft patter of a lizard’s footsteps or the whispered rustle of a grass snake’s sinuous trajectory can truly be heard? Hush. Be still. We only have to listen.

The garden is alive with insects who play their part magnificently, too. I’ve recently read a report about the effects of climate change on bumblebee demographics and in particular, how a run of very warm summers here in Spain has seen populations pushed ever northwards to these green and mountainous regions. I am no biologist but I can certainly vouch for that: they are here in their thousands and the garden and meadows thrum constantly with their exuberant notes. I love them; they are so busy and yet so unfussy, zipping from place to place and feeding at whichever flower take their fancy. Nothing is too grand or too humble for their attention – weeds, garden blooms, vegetable flowers, whatever. Crimson clover is proving to be a huge success, its vibrant bottlebrush flowers are an irresistible bee magnet. The same is true of phacelia, another green manure plant which has self-set around the patch in pops and drifts of hazy mauve, bristling with the frenetic activity of bumbles, honey bees and solitary bees alike.

Something we have noted with delight and optimism is the increasing amount of wildlife drawn to our patch year on year, not only in terms of absolute numbers but in the range and variety of species, too. How exciting this week to see a carpenter bee joining the phacelia feeding frenzy; we had them in our garden in France but have never seen one here until now. I think the females are stunning creatures clad in their shiny black armour with wings of metallic bluey-purple, iridescent in the sunlight. They are bold and brash and very loud which, along with their habit of building nests by hollowing out wooden structures, apparently gets them a bad name; I was completely shocked at how many internet sites give information on how to destroy these so-called troublesome pests. How sad. At least here in our little haven (or as Mary Reynolds would call it, our ‘ark’), they are safe and welcome.

As I sit in the garden writing this on the laptop, I realise that it has been exactly six weeks since I last left our property. For 42 days I have been here without exception, watching spring unfold around me in a way never quite as before. It has been fascinating to observe the developments and events, not in steps or leaps but in the tiniest, barely perceptible shifts of change; it has almost seemed possible to watch leafbuds burst, blossoms unfurl, seeds germinate. What incredible changes have occurred in a relatively short time! Like a time-lapse film, the countryside around us has greened and filled to bursting, whilst the garden canvas has moved through an entire palette – from primroses, violets and tulips to alliums, poppies and roses – to arrive at the crazy, carefree carnival of rainbows I love so much.

Where flower gardening is concerned, I’ve given up – not for any negative reason, you understand, but because I am simply no longer needed. Having saved many things that were already here, planted perennials, sowed biennials, scattered annuals and buried bulbs in previous years, nature now does the work for me and the garden takes care of itself. We haven’t planted the new border where concrete used to be because it will plant itself in the coming months. How could I improve on the swathes of colour, here soft and billowy, there loud and shocking, that have organised their own unique compositions? Would I have thought to take crimson clover and yellow calendula then stitch them through with the dazzling magenta of vetch?

Could it have occurred to me that candy pink granny’s bonnets mingling tastefully with the glaucous blue of cerinthe and then shot through with the screaming fiery orange of nasturtiums might be something that would work? Would I sow candytuft under the grapevine, pansies among the onions, wallflowers between the peas? It’s completely outrageous and I love the whole wild, reckless, hedonistic jumble of nature’s creativity. Let’s just smile and revel in it. Why interfere?

Of course, we’ve already handed the reins over to nature in many, many areas of our patch, those margins and larger spaces left to go deliberately wild after a nudge in the right direction. We’ve recently been developing the orchard area, improving access so that we can wander up and down the steep slopes and spend more time enjoying it; how daft to have a seat there which we barely sat on! Having cleared the rougher areas, knocking back the brambles and applying a selective grass cutting regimen, it is wonderful to watch the whole space regenerating and taking on a new and tantalisingly beautiful aura.

The wildflowers that were already present have proliferated and new ones have appeared, so that beneath the fruit and nut trees – currently resplendent with fragrant blossoms or fat catkins – there are pretty carpets of scattered colour. The verges, too, are a tangle of wild beauty and a-buzz with the rapt attention of a myriad insects.

Have these past six weeks, so worrying and disruptive for much of humanity, brought positive things to the abundance of life we are so lucky to share our environment with? Could the hugely increased numbers and acrobatic energy of the swallows here be a result of a better journey northwards through cleaner air? Is the natural world in general feeling the benefit of fewer machines, less air pollution and less noise?

Has our almost constant presence outside diminished the inhibitions of the resident birds who no longer seem to notice us being here? There is currently a great tit sitting on a hanging basket close by, delicately plucking fibres from the sheep’s fleece I used as liners, without a care in the world; a few moments ago, a dunnock landed on the back of the chair opposite, its beak stuffed with moss, so close I could have reached out and stroked it. It made no rush to leave.

We have at least two more weeks of lockdown here and then, by all accounts, only a very slow lifting of restrictions to movement in small steps towards the ‘new normal.’ By then, I sincerely hope that the human situation will be improving rapidly but in the meantime, with a deep sense of gratitude I shall continue to delight in the beauties of the season and the enchantment of the bumblebees’ song.