New horizons

They say that moving house is one of the most stressful life events, which is not surprising really considering how much there is to think about, organise and do; it can be completely exhausting, both physically and mentally. Thankfully, the house buying and selling system in France (and Spain) is more straightforward than the UK in as much as the commitment from both parties comes very early on in the process; this means the worries about being ‘gazumped’ or ‘gazundered’, losing a purchase or sale or chains collapsing are removed which helps to relieve much of the usual uncertainty and anxiety. Nevertheless, it’s always a relief to get through to the other side and into the next phase; for us, that’s a case of adjusting to the change from a home that was comfortable, organised, warm and familiar to one that is currently not really any of the above!

Part of the problem for us is the piecemeal way in which we are moving. We don’t have a lot of stuff, but much of it is still in Spain and we’re already at a point where we’re missing some key items such as the long ladder, the tractor, the basket of seeds (how did I ever not think to squeeze that into the last load?), various essential tools for house and garden and our favourite recipe books. It was certainly an interesting activity prioritising what could come when packing a very limited space: stepladder or wheelbarrow? propagator or sewing machine? food processor or stockpot . . ? One of the biggies was whose bike to bring – there was only room for one on the trailer – and here I have to say Roger was a perfect gentleman and loaded my Trusty Rusty Purple Peril without a second thought. Well, that makes me very happy and I definitely need to make sure I bring him some special thank you patisserie back from my forays into town!

Although we are in need of a few things we haven’t brought, it’s also shown that even with our simple lifestyle, there’s a lot of things we can manage without or which, long term, it makes sense to change or replace. It will be a while until we’re all sorted out but in the meantime I’ve always felt that if there is a fire in the hearth, bread in the oven, a kettle singing on the hob and washing blowing on the line, then we are a long way towards being home.

The biggest issue for us so far has been warmth. It goes without saying that after so many blissfully mild, sun-drenched Asturian winters, returning to northern Europe at the coldest time of year has been a bit of a shock to the system. Of course, we’ve spent most of our lives in this sort of climate so it’s not as if we’re not familiar with the need for coats, hats, gloves and warm boots – we’re just seriously out of the habit! The woodstove is great but it’s struggling to do anything well and is incredibly inefficient given the amount of logs it’s devouring. We’ve discovered several issues with it and need to give some serious thought as to how to revamp the heating system before next winter; luckily, we already have several options in mind.

We have photos of the house pre-renovation, complete with a tin roof! Certainly, whoever did the work here made a fabulous job; the quality of crafstmanship and materials is superb, and everything has been beautifully finished – which begs the question, why oh why wasn’t any insulation put in under the smart new slate roof? It’s no secret that good insulation is key to warmth and energy efficiency so it seems completely nonsensical not to have bothered. The answer, I suspect, may well lie in those glossy country lifestyle magazines whose staged photos tend to suggest that for rural dwellers, true happiness comes from having exposed beams rather than reduced energy bills or even (perish the thought) being warm. Well, that’s most definitely not true: we’re not hothouse flowers, but with the upstairs ceilings reaching right up to the ridge, it feels like we’re living in – and trying to heat – a cathedral.

The irony is these aren’t even beautiful oak beams seasoned over centuries and notched with rune-like carpenters’ marks but modern pine purlins and rafters that have been stained black for effect. It’s bloomin’ freezing upstairs (apart from the toasty bathroom which has been – wait for it – insulated) and conversely, must be stifling in summer when the Mayenne sunshine strikes the dark slates. Sorry, but they have to go in the name of warmth, economy, efficiency and generally saving the planet. So, having said we really, really, really didn’t want to be doing any serious renovation work this time, here we are spending our week putting a ceiling in our bedroom. I’ve been painting wooden panels of sustainably-grown Gascon maritime pine; the house is full of their sweet resinious scent, so reminiscent of the miles of plantations we have driven through many times between Bordeaux and Bayonne. Meanwhile, Roger has been doing the fiddly carpentry stuff and investigating the band saw which he found in the barn; it needed sharpening and the switch is broken, but he managed to fix it enough to help cut timber for the joists.

It’s a slow process but with half the ceiling done, there is already a definite feeling of change; with a lower ceiling, the room has taken on a cosier air and the white panelling has lifted the light level. We are packing 200 millimetres of insulation into every nook and cranny behind the boards and it’s incredible how quickly the ambient temperature is rising and the noise of rain and wind is being reduced. We’d both far rather be outside, but hopefully before too long the promise of a frosty night to follow those colourful sunsets won’t be quite so daunting!

As paint needs time to dry between coats (well, that’s my excuse, anyway), I have been able to spend some time outside making a start on a vegetable garden; the temperature has been occasionally bracing but it’s been lovely to boost my vitamin D levels and burn off some winter calories in the sunshine. The main veg patch that we have planned is going to take a lot of work and preparation so we decided it was worth investigating a couple of patches which have been previously cultivated, even if only to use them as temporary stop-gaps this year. Neither is in an ideal position, as when the trees are in leaf, they will be quite shady but since it’s toughies like parsnips and broad beans that will be planted in them initially, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. One of them had been fenced with a makeshift arrangement of chicken wire and rotten poles so first job was to have all that out.

Eventually, I’d like the garden to be managed on a low/no dig basis, feeding the soil from top down with minimal disturbance and using annual weeds as a mulch. However, despite having been planted last year, the soil was netted with couch grass roots, buttercups and celandines, so a proper dig to clear those was definitely called for. It feels like ages since I spent time preparing beds like this; I love the physical activity but I must admit I’m missing the little border fork I prefer to use!

The good news is that, despite the season, the soil – a rich sandy loam typical of the area – is beautifully friable. It will benefit in the future from good feeds of manure, compost, comfrey mulches and green manure cover but for now I’ve bought an organic all-purpose fertiliser to rake in (aarrgh, where’s the rake????) and give it a boost. I’ve been very thrilled to find a healthy worm population and I’m not the only one, it seems; a fat little robin has been my constant companion, watching proceedings with bright beady eyes and willing me to go in for a tea break so it can inspect my handiwork more closely. Go and find the fat balls, you rascal – we need all the worms we can get!

The second patch is in what was described to us as being a ‘secret garden’ since it has hedges on three sides. It’s a bit of a strange one, to be honest, but I don’t have time to be picky. There’s a huge rosemary growing in it and also some rhubarb which I was very delighted to find (Roger wasn’t!); despite being a large crown, it was a very miserable looking specimen as its growth was being constrained by a low square chimney pot that had been crammed over it and something had been munching away at its leaves.

It has perked up considerably since being liberated and with a good feed of muck and a lot of love, I’m hopeful for some delicious pickings in the future . . . and yes, I am happy to eat it all myself!

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do – ever since our children were small, in fact – is to create a garden space based on the idea of a maze; not the hiding kind with high hedges, but areas of planting chosen to appeal to all the senses between a spiral or labrynthine path that can be used for games of chase or simply to wind round into the centre. Some kind of seat for quiet contemplation or a gardener’s coffee break in the middle would be essential. These days, they tend to be called mandala gardens and I have actually already designed one as part of my permaculture course (which has currently been put on hold for obvious reasons) so I’m beginning to think that, as soon as it’s no longer needed for vegetables, this might be the perfect location to finally get on and do it. Mmm, I’m already seeing all those bright bursts of floral gorgeousness in my mind’s eye. . .

In the meantime, though, it’s all about food. It seems very strange for us not to be able to wander out and pick our dinner, growing our own food is so central to our lifestyle. That said, I’m quite enjoying the novelty of tucking into bought seasonal veg we haven’t eaten for a while: plump bitter chicons of endive, nutty cauliflowers, earthy red cabbage and the long, flavoursome carrots that come coated in sandy Breton soil. The local weekly market has a fantastic fruit and veg stall which will keep us supplied until our own harvests start; I can take reusable bags to fill which I’m very happy about although the ride home with several kilos of food on my back makes for a pretty good workout – don’t think I’ll be buying any big sacks of spuds! If nothing else, there are a few herbs scattered about the property which we are using in the kitchen, including a beautiful bay tree with the most fragrant leaves we’ve ever come across and of course, it goes without saying, we managed to squeeze some Asturian squash into our moving loads to keep us ticking over.

I’m truly enjoying the chance to be outside, to plunge my hands into the earth and start that all important process of bonding with this place, of learning who and what was here before us and finding my own niche in such a beautiful space. The wildlife is atonishing: red squirrels in abundance, hares a-plenty, a nonchalent fox which mooches through the garden without a care in the world and roe deer everywhere we turn. Roger opened the door to go out for a run shortly after sunrise a few days ago and surprised a posse of seven wild boar who were just across the lane; I’d forgotten how hefty they are here, their Asturian cousins being dainty fairies in comparison. Wonderful though this is, I’m not sure it bodes well for happy gardening so we are already planning a good fence and hedges around the main vegetable patch. My temporary feeding station is alive with constant bird traffic; it’s lovely to watch, especially as more and more species move in each day – the arrival of a female reed bunting was very exciting. The rest of the garden is teeming with birds, too, and straightening up for a mid-dig stretch I stood captivated by a firecrest busy in the hedge, nothing more than a tiny puff of feathers and so close I could have touched it, swiftly followed by a plump treecreeper shimmying up a cherry tree and meeting me at eye level.

Temporary feeding station in the old cherry plum tree . . . not the most refined, but the birds are happy (and very full!).

I love these priceless moments completely immersed in the natural world, they are treasure indeed. There are flowers, too, sweet harbingers of spring; the hedge bottoms are filled with drifts of snowdrops and the glossy leaves of a scrambling periwinkle flaunting dainty mauve flowers. There are masses of daffies to follow, their spears of buds fattening with each day that passes. This is the magic of a new garden, watching to see the secrets unfold as we travel through the first year together.

If I had to choose one plant that defines this area (apart from cherry trees at certain times of the year) then it would be mistletoe, that weird and wonderful hemiparasite so traditionally linked with the Christmas season yet in reality something of a pest if it weakens the host trees. It grows in abundance in local apple orchards but I think it is most significant in the tall poplars, where the huge lime green globes, seemingly skewered by skeletal branches, form a winter silhouette of striking contrasts.

There is only one plant in our garden; it’s a relatively small affair and yet the berries suggest it has been there for five or six years. Magical, mythical or a menace? I suppose it depends on your point of view, but since for me it captures so well the essence of this rolling landscape with its wide tracts of woodlands and myriad ponds, then I’m glad it’s here. I’m glad we’re here, too. New home, new horizons – our journey has well and truly begun. 🥰

Journeys

We are back in Asturias to collect the second load of our belongings and I have to say the weather is being less than kind.

It is the coldest, wintriest spell we have ever experienced here and I am feeling very grateful for a shed full of dry, seasoned logs and a well-insulated house – two glaring omissions at our new home in Mayenne which we need to rectify as soon as we possibly can. The journey between places is the same as that from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, in other words the entire length of Great Britain; it usually takes us between twelve and fourteen hours depending on whether or not we are pulling a trailer, weather conditions, roadworks, how many times we stop en route and the dreaded extras like flat tyres, traffic jams and road closures. Most of the trip is on motorways which helps to eat up the miles but it is incredibly dull, like a long haul flight without the films. By the weekend, we will have done it three times in thirteen days; to say we are already feeling travel weary would be an understatement, for sure.

In a perfect world, all this would be happening very differently. Our Big Plan was to sell our home in Spain first, then move lock, stock and barrel all in one go to France, preferably at a better time of year when the days are longer and the weather less unpredictable. Life, of course, is never that simple and the twin evils of Brexit and Covid-19 well and truly scuppered our original plans. It’s going to be a complicated and messy few months for us but, rather than moaning or stressing about it, I am thanking my lucky stars that we made it to France before the 31st December deadline. I feel desperately sorry for the many people who wanted to do the same but simply ran out of time; to have lost such a precious opportunity and freedom is a crushing blow which I imagine no amount of blue passports will ever heal. We did it. We are the fortunate ones. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

So, to happier things and the unexpected opportunity to hug the fire and write a blog post; it’s too horrible to do anything outside and too soon to start packing all our kitchen equipment which will form the bulk of the next car load so I have a little time to start reflecting on the next chapter of our life’s journey. Why not grab a brew and come with me? Let me give you a quick guided tour . . . 😊

Our new home is a traditional stone cottage with an attached barn at one end and a smaller cave at the other. We have a kitchen, sitting room, two bedrooms and a bathroom which is ample living room for the two of us and, as always, we have plans for making plenty of outdoor living spaces, too. The house faces south-east, so the gravelled area in front of it will no longer be used for parking but as a sunny terrace with table and chairs for morning mugs of coffee, al fresco dining or simply soaking up a few rays. That rather glamourous blue tarp is covering solar panels which will provide us with hot water for most of the year; the possibility for a greener and more sustainable lifestyle was one of the factors that attracted us to this property ~ of which, more next time. Behind the cave is a lovely sheltered area which used to house a bread oven and this, I think, has great potential to make a pretty and more intimate space for sitting.

The barn is a hugely useful space and, although we seem to have inherited a fair amount of junk in it, I can report that there is one very happy bunny who at long, long last has a proper fixed workbench for the first time in his life!

I’m equally delighted to have probably the best rainwater capture system we’ve ever had, collecting run-off from a further stone outbuilding and perfect for those long hot spells that are so typical of a Mayennais summer.

Compared to some of our previous purchases, the house is very habitable and civilised; a comfortable kitchen, bathroom and central heating are a bit of a shock to the system! There is, however, plenty to be done to the house interior and those activities will, I’m sure, feature in future posts. For us, though, it is ultimately the outside space that is the most important factor and here we have a wonderful long-term project in waiting.

It is fair to say, our new garden lacks the stunning views, wow factor and quirky character of our Asturian patch, but it certainly has its attractions. For starters, it is flat and as we intend to live here for a long time ~ maybe forever ~ that has positive practical implications. There is a degree of maturity in the shape of trees, shrubs, hedges and partial landscaping but overall it is a blank canvas waiting for ideas. Mmm, we might have a few of those.

Our first few days were spent signing for the house, unpacking the car and trailer (in a blizzard!) and getting a feel for the property and a real idea of the problems and potential. It always fascinates me how little time we actually spend studying a house before we buy it, especially considering how much money is involved; it’s common practice to test drive a car before parting with money for it, but how often do we get the chance to test ‘occupy’ a house? Our most pressing issue right from the start was warmth: we were dismayed to find that the logs we had been told would be left were not the dry, chopped, stacked kind we will happily leave in the shed for our eventual buyers in Asturias but random lumps of wood scattered about the property where they were rotting, rather than seasoning. Even the pile under a tarpaulin was soaking wet. Having been under the impression we wouldn’t need the chainsaw on this first trip, we had decided not to pack it so first job was to dash to the nearest farmers’ shop (thankfully, we know exactly where to find such essential places locally) and buy a bow saw. Roger then spent a day cutting all the smaller, drier stuff he could find into logs and shifting that pile into the dry shed next to it.

A good supply of seasoned logs has been part of our lives for many years and our new home will be no exception. There is a mighty wood stove in the kitchen which is great for cooking and heating water (we didn’t take the hob kettle either, hence the saucepan of water on top!) and also runs four radiators. It’s a greedy log gobbler, though, and will take some feeding so logging will be a top priority for us through this year . . . and one of the reasons we are also buying a coppice a short distance away.

While Roger organised logs, I decided to repurpose that tarp and make a start on the vegetable patch. We have ample space for a large and productive potager with masses of veggies, fruit, herbs and flowers, a polytunnel and net tunnel, a proper two- or three- bay compost system (I’m very excited about that one) but as always, it has to start with the soil. We’ve created enough gardens from fields in our time to know the first step is to knock back the vegetation; yes, it would be lovely to do the proper no-dig thing and start with cardboard sheets but we don’t have the vast amount of compost and muck that would require and couch grass roots are hellish things so a first dig will be necessary to get things started. After days spent packing, travelling, unpacking and going off in search of important things like a new fridge, it was lovely to be outside in the fresh air doing some honest physical work; I walked miles back and forth to collect and carry all those stones (a wheelbarrow and trug are definitely on the next load) but it was a joy. I’d forgotten how wonderful the birdlife is in this landscape and revelled in the sight of a pair of pure white herons stalking on long stilted legs in the neighbouring field, the garrulous clacking of bossy fielfares raiding the globes of mistletoe, the looping and tumbling of flocks of lapwings, rippling and shadowing the sky in perfectly synchronised murmurations. There are roe deer and red squirrels a-plenty here and spring will bring the mad boxing hares. It’s a beautiful place to be.

There is an abundance of birds in our Asturian garden and it is possible to see many different varieties in any given day; however, with the exception of robins, wrens, blackbirds and blackcaps, they tend to be just passing through rather than permanent residents. Bullfinches are very much front and centre at the moment, the vivid deep pink of the males’ plumage a vibrant flash against the grey and white landscape. I suspect they are coursing the peach trees in the hope of nipping off some early buds! We don’t feed the birds in winter here as there is simply no need; even in the current cold weather, there is no shortage of natural food to be found and anyway, I have never seen wild bird food in the shops. In contrast, our new garden is teeming with birdlife on the lookout for an easy meal and making a proper bird table, as well as some nesting boxes, is definitely on the to-do list. When Roger made the surprise discovery of a large bag of mixed seed in the cave, I decided to rig up a temporary feeding station out of some of our inherited junk by drilling drainage holes in a large plastic tray and sitting it on an old stool, weighed down with a rock. It’s not the most glamourous and a bit low (although I didn’t see signs of a single neighbourhood cat while we were there) but it wasn’t long before a robin and great tit were vying for occupancy. I filled it to overflowing before we left and will happily be back at the farmers’ store stocking up on an array of feeders and bird foods next week. Having enjoyed the sweet moment of a red squirrel sitting on the kitchen windowsill, I have a feeling we might attract some little furry visitors, too.

Among the mature trees on the property are several large oaks, one of which had dumped a thick carpet of leaves on the gravel in front of the house. This was certainly something that needed tackling, not from any aesthetic reason (fallen leaves don’t bother me one jot) but because the soil here is going to need a lot of love and this is a golden resource not to be wasted: wonderful, rich, friable compost in the making. Having found a flimsy but functional rake in the junk pile, I set about creating several huge piles of leaves, then shifting them a bucket at a time (no question we need that wheelbarrow and trug pronto!) to form an enormous heap in a sheltered place. It was lovely, warming work and a good job done; now I can forget all about them and let nature do the important bit.

One of the many things I love about gardens is the way in which individual gardeners put their own stamp on a patch, making the space an expression of their own personalities and characters; it would be so very dull if every garden was created to be identical to the next one or people felt constrained by a set of horticultural rules and regulations that stifle individuality and creativity. I’ve always felt that the medium of plants offers a satisfying and fun way of playing with colour and form for someone like myself who could never do the same with paints and I love taking inspiration from other people’s clever and creative ideas. There are things here I would never choose to plant ~ ornamental conifers, camelias and heathers have never really been my cup of tea ~ but each to their own, I say. However . . . there are some limits to what we’re happy to tolerate in our garden and I was pretty horrified to find that we have inherited the mother lode of plastic solar garden lights. They were every shape, size and design imaginable and it is no exaggeration to say they were absolutely everywhere ~ truly, not a single nook or cranny had escaped. I can’t bear the things. I’m a country mouse, born and bred and I’ve never been afraid of the dark; nature blesses us with moonlight and starlight and in the absence of either, the darkness simply brings a balance that I’m happy to embrace. This is a land of barn owls and I’m excited about watching their silent ghostly flights through the garden without the whole place being lit up like a Christmas tree! So, the lights had to go; I’m not entirely convinced I’ve found them all yet, but we now have an enormous pile ready to take to the local household recycling centre and nothing to detract from the wondrous beauty of this wide sky on starry, starry nights.

It’s interesting how our first tasks here have been such a reflection of our approach to life in general, that close connection to the natural process of things and the awareness that we share this space with a wealth of other living things. From leaves to compost to soil to seeds to plants to food and logs for warmth and energy: these are the endless loops and circles and cycles of which we are a tiny yet privileged part and our intention is to support and enhance them in whatever ways we can. We’ve taken our first steps on a new and exciting journey; we have started the all important process of bonding with this piece of land and turning a house into a new home. We have no way of knowing exactly where this journey will take us, in which direction each new step will lead . . . but then, that’s all part of the fun. Isn’t it? 😉

Pastures new

The winter solstice sunset seems a fitting photo to head this post, which will almost certainly be the last one I write from Asturias. If all goes according to plan, next week we will be moving to our new home in northern France and taking the first steps in our next Grand Adventure; yes folks, Wallace and Gromit have nothing on us!

Let me explain. We aren’t leaving Asturias because we are unhappy here ~ far from it, in fact. I have written many, many times about how much we love it here and what a privilege it is to live in this natural paradise, surrounded by utterly stunning scenery and wilderness, revelling in a benign climate and welcomed and accepted by such warm, friendly people. In truth, I never expected Asturias to get under my skin quite as much as it has and for us both, it will always be one of the most amazing places we have ever experienced.

That said, we only ever planned to stay for five years. Much as we love it, this is not the right place for us to grow old and we always knew there would be another project to follow, provided we didn’t leave it too long ~ better to do it while we’re still fit enough and mad enough. We had hoped to stay until next summer but as we want to remain living in the EU, Brexit has sadly forced our hand. To retain the right to residency in France, we have to be there by the 31st of December; it’s been a bit of a nail-biting scramble but thankfully we will just squeak in. Moving house is a stressful business at the best of times, but to be moving country as well with all the chaos of Brexit, Covid-19 and Christmas in the mix feels like complete madness! Still, we have a habit of doing things the hard way and I think it helps to keep us feeling sharp and alive (if slightly frazzled).

I don’t want to say much about our new home as there will be plenty of that to come in my future wafflings and musings; suffice to say for now that we are very, very excited about returning to Mayenne and as we have lived in the area before, there is a lovely sense of ‘going home.’ There is a pretty stone cottage, a blank canvas of a (flat! 😲) garden and a parcel of broadleaf woodland all waiting for our attention; no big renovation jobs this time but plenty to keep us busy in the coming years. The less challenging topography means I will be back on my bike again and I’m really looking forward to cycling into the nearest small town for bits and pieces of shopping. In fact, we have the chance to really increase our green credentials all round which pleases me very much. The poor old car will be practically put out to grass.

We’ve been fairly nomadic through our years together but we have never believed in looking back; it would be all too easy to feel a crushing sadness at the thought of leaving such a beautiful place, but that’s not our way. We will be taking so many happy memories away with us, so many incredible experiences; our lives have been hugely enriched by our time here and we have learnt much about many things, including ourselves. I have no doubt that the sound of a cowbell or whiff of eucalyptus will bring me back to Asturias, in spirit at least, for the rest of my life.

The next couple of months are going to be fairly crazy as we move ourselves northwards in stages. The priority ~ as always ~ will be to get a vegetable garden started and we are already making lots of plans on that score; at least the Mayennais climate holds no surprises for us so it shouldn’t be quite such a steep learning curve as the one we had here. I’m going to miss frost-free winters and that abundance of peaches, though!

My blog is going to have to take a back seat for a while but, like a certain Austrian actor once famously said, I’ll be back! In the meantime, I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has taken precious moments out of their lives this year to read, like or comment on my posts ~ I am genuinely touched and grateful, it means the world to me. I hope that everyone can enjoy a happy and peaceful festive season despite the difficult circumstances, and that 2021 will bring us all a year with less disruption and uncertainty and many wonderful things to celebrate.

The last word, however, must go to the place we have been proud to call home since May 2016.

¡Muchas gracias, Asturias, y hasta luego!