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!