More meanderings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every cloud . . .

No matter how chaotic it is, wild flowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere.

Sheryl Crow

I am an optimist by nature. I’m not old enough to remember Monty Python but I do try to always look on the bright side of life (sorry if that’s caused anyone to have an earworm now 🙂 ). I think it’s important to greet each new day with gratitude, each experience with wonder and to smile far more than I frown. At the same time, I’m also a realist which I believe is essential in life, particularly when things don’t go according to plan. It’s so easy to rant and rage, throw our teddies out of the proverbial pram and look for someone or something to blame or else stick our fingers firmly in both ears and sing, “La la la la la la la, not listening, not listening . . .” in an act of total denial. There’s a lot of both going on at the moment around the world and whilst I appreciate people have the right to find their own ways of dealing with situations that are threatening, frightening and deeply worrying, there’s much to be said for a calm and balanced approach. Change happens whether we like it or not. Life is messy. We have to deal with that.

There is much discussion about the ways in which the experiences of COVID-19 might bring about positive changes for humanity and the planet and as an optimist, I am remaining hopeful . . . despite the queues at shopping centres and diposable gloves and masks adding to the already horrendous amounts of plastic waste. Take wild flowers, for instance. As a family, we spent many years pleading with the local councils in South Shropshire and Powys to revise their roadside management policies. Every year saw the grass verges cut just as the wildflowers were at their very best and buzzing with insect life; the hedges were flailed two, three or sometimes more times a year (and boy, did I have the punctures to prove it travelling along those lanes to work ~ five in one school term, no less!), one of those cuts in early autumn always taking the berries and nuts as well as the last of the leaves, so ushering in winter far too early.

The arguments for this approach were twofold, the first being the importance of maintaining a safe environment for road users and pedestrians alike. Now obviously we completely understood that safety must be a priority, especially on certain junctions and dangerous bends ~ but why then the need to treat all stretches of roadside the same, or to cut to a depth of more than one mower’s width where ‘safety’ obviously didn’t come into it? The answer lay in the second reason: we were told time and time again that people like to see the verges and hedges regularly cut, they like the countryside to be tidy and manicured. Really? Why? This isn’t a bowling green or someone’s lawn we’re talking about. Nature isn’t tidy, it’s messy and chaotic, that’s what creates a healthy biodiversity in different ecosystems, including the tiny ones I wrote about in my last post.

Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t persuade the councils to listen; in fact, if anything, things worsened to the point that over a period of thirteen years in one rural home, we saw the diversity of floral species in the verges dwindle from that gorgeous classic May mix of bluebells, red campion, stitchwort, lady’s smock, foxgloves and wild garlic and the frothy foam of meadowsweet and fiery spires of rosebay willowherb later in the year to sterile strips supporting only nettles and cow parsley. As the flowers disappeared, so too did the wildlife that benefited from them. The ecosystem was greatly impoverished.

More recently, there have been some positive moves such as the ‘bee friendly’ incentives that have seen traffic islands planted with wild flowers but I have been even more encouraged by reports of attitudes changing as a result of COVID-19 causing councils to scale back their roadside cutting regimens. This has allowed the flowers to bloom and, along with clearer skies and enhanced birdsong, it seems that many people are appreciating the true beauty and value of British wild flowers and organisations such as Plantlife are attracting much interest in their campaigns to protect these natural treasures. Perhaps this will be change for the good, a silver lining to the coronavirus cloud? I hope so.

In complete contrast, I have always welcomed the attitude to roadside maintenance here in Asturias which has seemed to be far gentler and more sensitive to the environment in general. The local council only cuts once a year, late in the season when the flowers have set seed and young birds have fledged (they also sweep up after themselves, so no punctures here!); in between times, local people scythe some areas ~ particularly the wide verges on the inside of hairpin bends ~ to make hay or feed directly to stock, but otherwise all is left well alone and the verges are stunningly beautiful.

Well, they were. I don’t know what exactly has happened but we seem to have emerged from the peace of lockdown into Strimmer World, some kind of parallel universe where anything that doesn’t move is razed to the roots by an army of buzzing machines. It’s not just people tidying up their neglected gardens or clearing overgrown paths, either; every roadside strip has been scalped along with places I’ve never seen cut, including riverbanks and even meadows that are normally left to the cows. Even worse, there seems to be a bit of an unprecedented spraying frenzy going on, too. A few weeks ago when we were granted the freedom to walk further than one kilometre from home, we did a circular hike up to the top of the mountain behind the house and back again, climbing up on forest tracks and returning down the winding mountain road. The roadside verges were a real show, full of colour and buzzing with life and we took plenty of photos. A couple of days ago I walked back up a stretch of that road . . . and things couldn’t have been more different. Someone has sprayed the verges on both sides of the road for several kilometres. Everything is dying or already dead.

Where previously there was colour, beauty and life, now there is a barren scrubland. These were the oxeye daisies before . . .

. . . and now.

The knapweed was alive and thrumming with the attentions of insect life . . .

. . . now it’s not even alive.

I’d hoped to pick some beautiful big heads of yarrow to dry for herbal teas. Not a chance.

The saddest part of my walk was the silence: not so much as a single bumble bee to be seen or heard. The heather should be full of them now.

I feel utterly sad that this has happened, partly because it is completely unnecessary but also because it is so very out of character. This is not the Asturian way. What on earth is going on? I am slightly fascinated in an armchair psychology kind of way; is this the result of seven weeks of total lockdown (bearing in mind it was far stricter here than it has been in the UK)? Has being confined en casa or the fear of a pandemic and all its unknown consequences resulted in some kind of atavistic need to go out and destroy and control, to beat nature into submission? I really don’t know but I’m hoping it’s just a one-off, one of life’s strange blips because if it’s going to be a permanent thing, then it very definitely isn’t change for the better.

Back to the bright side, though ~ I’m all for balance! For starters, when I walked out to take those photos, I was bearly a few metres from home when I saw the most beautiful fox on the track ahead of me. I stopped walking and stood absolutely still but it showed no fear of me whatsoever so we watched one another for several quiet minutes before it mosied off through the undergrowth. We don’t have a zoom lens on our camera, which is why my wildlife photos are always composed of subjects I can get close to, but hopefully you will get the idea of how close we were (note our verges had been left in peace). It was a magical moment.

Further on, I joined the mountain road and depressing though the sight of those devastated verges was, when I lifted my eyes I couldn’t help but find some kind of hope and healing in that beautiful view.

The photo at the top of this post was taken a short time after the end of two days of storms that had brought high winds, torrential rain and an unseasonal drop in temperature. In what seemed like moments, the cloud lifted and scattered across the bluest of skies and the sun blazed; the garden was suddenly bursting with life and activity again. I certainly wasn’t the only one enjoying the return of that blissful warmth.

We are blessed to share our space with such a wealth of wildlife and I have to remind myself that where the vegetation hasn’t been hacked back or sprayed, the verges and forest trails, meadows and wild spaces still bustle with nature’s busyness. A couple of nights ago, we stood with our heads out of the roof window watching a deer grazing in the meadow above, serene and silent amidst the raucous din of a joyful frogs’ chorus. I have spent the last few days watching a family of young redstarts take their first tentative steps and flights around the garden; the parents nested in the tiny wild patch we’ve created from an old chicken run and have raised a beautful if demanding brood, who ~ even though they fledged ten days ago ~ are still sitting about expectantly waiting for food to come to them! Again, the photo isn’t zoomed but you can make out one of the youngsters waiting on the rail in anticipation of the next beakful . . .

So, there is still much to be celebrated, much optimism to be exercised. Let me finish with a heartwarming story about a little girl living in Gijón, one of the three major cities in Asturias, which is surely one of the loveliest tales to have emerged from these strange times here. Having spent several weeks in total lockdown like all Spanish children, unable to leave her home at all, she was finally given the freedom to spend an hour outside with one adult going no further than one kilometre from her home. She chose to go to the nearby beach (Gijón is a seafront city) and spent her precious hour picking up plastic bottles and rubbish that had washed up onto the sand during the weeks of lockdown. With caring souls like that in this world, I like to feel there truly is hope for this beautiful planet we call home. 🙂

Sweet liberty

Having been locked down here so tightly for so long, the freedom which comes with each tentative Spanish step back towards some kind of normality leaves me feeling slightly giddy with delight. How wonderful to be able to walk and cycle from home once again and catch up with all that has happened in our beautiful neighbourhood in recent weeks. Mountain roads, country lanes, forest tracks . . . what a treat to be striding out or pedalling leisurely together, drinking in stunning views in these lush green mountains under wide blue skies.

Having moved into a new phase which granted us permission to travel further afield within Asturias, we decided to celebrate with a walk along the local coastpath from Puerto de Vega to Playa de Frejulfe. This is one of my very favourite jaunts; it’s not far (roughly 3 kilometres / 2 miles) nor is it difficult, but it is wild and atmospheric and very, very beautiful – and realising I hadn’t seen the sea for nearly twelve weeks, I was bubbling with excitement and anticipation. What’s more, the sun was shining and the swallow- daubed air blissfully warm; summer seemingly, if not technically, has arrived with us in all its balmy glory this week.

We started our walk at the Capilla de Nuestra Señora de la Atalaya which stands alone on a pretty promontory and is built on the site of a 13th century hermitage; it is the kind of ancient mariners’ chapel that is so traditional along the weather-beaten Atlantic coasts of northern Spain and western France. The weather vane design and unusual altar situated in a ship’s bowsprit serve to remind the faithful how inextricably linked their history and community are with the sea; Puerto de Vega may be a relatively small harbour but it is still a commercial fishing port nonetheless.

Heading in a westerly direction, the path does what most coastal trails do: winds along craggy clifftops and skirts patchworks of small fields and windswept woodlands, here dipping down into wave-beaten coves, there climbing to the top of rocky bluffs. Early in May, the flowers along this route are completely stunning; in previous years, I have described it as walking in nature’s garden, the sheer abundance of species and colour and form rendering it almost impossible to know where to look first.

This year, however, the clifftop garden has bloomed in rare tranquil solitude with only the wheeling seabirds privy to its spring spectacular. Arriving too late, we had missed the best of it.

Not that I felt downhearted: how could I? Following the confines of lockdown, it felt as if I was walking this path again for the very first time, there was such a freshness to it, a sense of things new and unexplored. Somehow in this landscape I always feel a curious mix of peaceful timelessness juxtaposed with fretful change as the restless sea hurls itself against the land’s edge, sculpting and shaping and shifting the rocky limits. There is nothing willingly yielded, no quarter given; the rock is dark and glowering, standing sharp and stubborn against the tidal onslaught and yet all is mellowed and soothed by that infinite canvas of blue on blue beyond.

We might have missed the best of the flowers but there was still plenty there to catch the eye . . . and the nose, too. Long stretches of the path are flanked with honeysuckle which scrambles in a chaotic profusion along the ground rather than twining upwards. Such heady perfume! I realised what an unexpected mingling of scents honeysuckle and salt air is, slightly shocking but so very tantalising like the fire of chilli in chocolate or the crunch of salt in caramel.

There were other beauties, too, in a beguiling mix of simple and startling, native and incomer.

It’s interesting how the eucalyptus – that ubiquitous weed tree – struggles on these coastal fringes, ragged leaves tortured and scorched by the salt-laden wind. The pines look far more comfortable, scenting the air with their resinous warmth and striking animated poses against the cinematic backdrop.

I have loved Frejulfe beach since the first time I set foot there four years ago. There is an enduring enchantment to that crescent of shining sand, curving in a perfect arc between green woods and wild waves: it is breathtaking in all seasons. Descending the steps from coastpath to beach, I was delighted to find our usual ‘table’ had been reserved for lunch!

Coming from this direction means that in order to walk along the beach, we first have to cross a river that is too deep for shoes, so there is nothing for it but to dump the footwear and start paddling. The sea here is cold (the Mar Cantábrico is no Mediterranean!) and it’s usually September before I’m brave enough to wade in for a dip; in the meantime, I do love a bit of a splash along the shoreline, feeling the pulse of the lace-edged waves beneath my sandy toes.

The far end of the beach always strikes me as a place of mystery and fascination, a spot that just has to be explored. The tide pulls back to reveal a wealth of rock pools unusually accessible for the Asturian coastline (we normally have to scramble a fair bit!), each a mini-world in itself, brimming with an abundant complexity of wondrous life forms.

The brooding cliffs open into caves of penetrating black, the hunkered rocks squeezed and split into tight tunnels and tilted chasms that draw inquisite footprints into hidden places. I never fail to be astonished by such geology, these citadels of tortured texture the result of unimaginable energetic tumult eons ago. Was it destruction or creation, that violent process? I’m never quite sure, but the tactile calligraphy scored into those ancient stones draws my fingers like a magnet every time.

Not to be outdone, the sea reminded me that it, too, is an accomplished artist, etching sinuous meanders and branching dendrites into the wet sand.

The idea of a classic beach holiday – you know, the kind where you lie about with crowds of other people toasting under sweltering skies – fills me with abject horror . . . but give me a short spell in a peaceful seaside spot like this and I am as happy as a happy thing. Peaceful it was, too; late May, fabulous weather and the children not in school – who can believe a beach could be so empty? We are thoroughly spoilt, I think!

Climbing back to the coastpath, we noticed that the cliffs were larded with thick clumps of rock samphire or sea fennel, as it is also known. It is perfectly edible but in culinary terms, it has traditionally been considered a poor cousin to the more fashionable marsh samphire, albeit botanically they are not related. However, trendy chefs are apparently now serving rock samphire instead of marsh samphire because the latter is deemed to be too ‘ordinary’ these days; given its habit of growing in inaccessible places, daring foragers supplying restaurants can command a high price for their labours. Now, I love a bit of wild food foraging and this was very accessible indeed but, tempted though I was by those succulent aromatic little branches packed with vitamin C, I left well alone. This is a plant that has been a protected species in the UK for most of my lifetime and is endangered in certain parts of Spain; it needs all the help it can get and it’s not as if we are short of green stuff on our plates! Once again, I was reminded of the fragility of life, the delicate knife edge on which so many precious and extraordinary species and ecosystems balance, and what a blessing it is that I have the opportunity to witness, experience and reflect upon so much that is wonderful in nature.

Interestingly (or not, depending on your perspective – sorry, but I’m a hopeless word nerd 😉 ), the origin of ‘samphire’ is thought to be a corruption of the French Saint Pierre, sailors of old having cast the plant, which they valued highly in the prevention of scurvy, under the protective cloak of the patron saint of all things maritime. I thought there was a rather pleasing circularity at play here, given how our walk had started at a seafarers’ chapel. So, setting the compass of my somewhat pagan spirit to the east, I stepped out once again, relishing the salty tang of the fresh sea breeze, the benevolent caress of the sun on my face and this new-found liberty that is oh so sweet! 🙂

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.

From lockdown, with love

Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Alexander Pope

We are now in the third week of lockdown in Spain as the country continues its fight against the Covid-19 virus. What a wonderful (if tentative) moment of hope when last week it became clear that Asturias had moved beyond the peak as the number of new cases began to fall; the government here instigated measures several days before the declaration of a national state of alarm and so the principality is running a little ahead of the national situation. Of course, there is a long, long way to go yet and as keyworkers continue in their tireless and heroic efforts to save lives, to keep us safe and to maintain essential supply chains, for most people daily reality remains being confined en casa. The media focus tends to fall on the experience of people living in urban areas, which is quite understandable: that is where the vast majority of the population lives, many of them confined to small apartments with a tiny balcony their only window on the world. I give thanks every day that we have a beautiful garden and a stunning view, open space and limitless fresh air where we can breathe deeply, stretch our limbs and feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. We are very blessed.

However, it was interesting and refreshing one day last week to see the local online press reporting on the experience of rural dwellers in what is known as Asturias vaciada – emptied Asturias. Like many parts of Spain, Asturias has experienced mass rural depopulation over the last few decades, leaving a countryside littered with empty houses, meagre settlements and an elderly population. Our village is no exception; of the 26 dwellings here, half are unoccupied and as a couple in our fifties we are very much at the younger end of the age range. Local councils are working hard to provide round-the-clock help and care for vulnerable people living in these isolated areas whose situation at first glance might seem deeply concerning . . . and yet, the newspaper report shared a fascinating insight by one interviewee who made three wise and salient observations about the experience and resilience of rural people in these difficult and uncertain times.

The first point they made was that living in such relatively empty rural areas, it can be many days before you cross a neighbour’s path. ‘Isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are part and parcel of everyday life and as such, come as no surprise or hardship. For us, this is absolutely true. Even if I go out on a run (not currently, obviously!) that takes me down to the village, I only pass one house closely and more often than not, I don’t see our neighbours who live there. In another direction, I can walk or run for over two miles before I come to the first occupied house. I have lost count of the number of times we have gone out from home or further afield and walked for many hours without seeing another soul. If we stay at home, we can go for several days without seeing anyone unless our postman Ricardo comes down the lane or Jairo comes up to check his cows. I’ve read a lot lately about how human beings are social creatures who crave company but I think that’s a bit of a sweeping generalisation; I love Roger’s company, I enjoy communicating and spending time with others but I also delight in a bit of solitude and have always been completely comfortable on my own. If you are used to being alone, then loneliness is rarely an issue. If your daily routine isn’t built around contact and constant chatter, then silence is a pleasure, not a threat.

The second point made was that when people are used to producing their own food whether it be vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, meat, milk, eggs or whatever, when ‘normal’ life involves baking your own bread and making preserves, when meal planning starts with what you have at home, then there is no need to go to the shops regularly. The constraint of only being allowed to travel short distances to buy essential supplies doesn’t bring too many changes. Every occupied house in our village has a productive vegetable garden and fruit trees, and many have chickens, beehives and a pig. There are no doorstep supermarket deliveries but each week sees vans selling bread, frozen foods, cakes, fruit and vegetables and fresh fish arrive in the village – the drivers with hand on horn to announce their arrival – and this has continued through lockdown. We might live a long way from the nearest food shops and supermarket, we might be eating a lot of kale and squash and salad . . . but we are most definitely not going hungry.

Third, it was pointed out that if we spend our time caring for a few animals or tending a patch of land then our days are naturally filled with activities that are nurturing, absorbing and uplifting. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we are immune to the events or horrors of the wider world, just that our mental focus centres on a way of living that teaches us how to cope with the ups and downs of life, how to be pragmatic and optimistic and above all, keeps us grounded in the cycles and seasons of the natural world.

That final point resonated very strongly with me, which I’m sure will come as no surprise to regular readers; I make no secret of the fact that a close connection to nature is fundamental to my lifestyle and, most definitely, my wellbeing. Despite the worrying headlines and footage from around the world, and anxious thoughts about the safety of loved ones, if I can put my hands into the earth, sprinkle seeds, see the bright green fizz of new leaves unfurling, plunge my nose into flowers and hear the call of the cuckoo on the mountain, then I have hope and healing.

I love the idea of ‘listening to the land,’ an idea shared by Patrick Whitefield in The Earthcare Manual and Mary Reynolds in The Garden Awakening, two absorbing and inspiring books I have read and re-read in recent months. I particularly liked Patrick’s astute observation that if you ask someone to observe a garden or piece of ground they tend to reach for paper and pen and start to write notes or make sketches; on the other hand, asking them to close ther eyes and listen to the land leads to a stillness and focus and -ultimately – a much greater awareness of the feel of the place. This reminds me of the way in which the ancient druids used sensory deprivation as a powerful learning tool which heightened their awareness and creativity. With her love of Irish magic, Mary refers to the spirit of the land and both authors recognise the importance of acknowledging, recognising and honouring this quality in designing and caring for gardens. It’s a case of not asking, ‘What can we do with this land?’ but instead, ‘ How can we work with it?’ The two are often very different things! So, with this in mind, and given that we are at least allowed into the garden if not beyond, we have been spending our days working on some of the new projects I mentioned in an earlier post. (As these are ongoing activities, please bear in mind, some of the photos are several weeks old.)

First, our attempts to reduce the amount of ugly concrete. Having talked about a few possible ideas, we decided to start by removing a wide strip of concrete that runs from the yard to the field gate along the top of the vegetable patch; the path doesn’t need to be that wide and we hoped that by swapping the concrete for a planting area, we could capture a sense of the garden extending and flowing more naturally.

As with so many projects, making a start was the trickiest part as there’s no way of knowing whether it will be a success or not. Nothing for it, then, but to grab the sledgehammer and get stuck in . . .

Once Roger had made that start, things went pretty swimmingly although it never fails to astound me just how much rubble jobs like this create.

With the concrete lifted, the next job was to tackle the wall at the far end; as it holds the path up, it was important not to remove it. However, there was certainly scope for a radical overhaul as the wall had been cobbled together with bits of breeze block, bricks, metal mesh and a whole host of other rubbish in the unique style of ‘building’ we have become used to finding here. What was truly puzzling is that the area behind this dubious construction had been filled with flat stones just perfect for building a . . . wall!

I believe one of the best ways to listen to the land is to work with naturally occurring materials wherever possible and the local stone is no exception. Our house, barn and horreo were all originally built from the honey-coloured stone that is typical of the area and we have used it to build many terraces in the garden. The obvious thing to do here, then, was to remove the ‘rubble wall’ and replace it with a more attractive and far more appropriate dry stone one. With that done, and the ground dug over (and another huge pile of rubble dug out in the process) and a generous quantity of muck forked in, the new planting area was created. There’s no rush to plant it, though; I love the way that things spread and self-set so liberally here, so we’ll give nature free reign in the coming months and see what transpires.

Staying in the same area of the garden, and in the last couple of summers I have planted hanging baskets on the horreo, loving the idea of bright splashes of floral colour against that lovely stone. The results, I have to confess, have been a bit mixed; I’ve struggled to find plants that have been truly happy – even geraniums (pelargoniums) which grow like a weed here failed to really give it their best shot. Hanging baskets are not a common sight here and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a good reason for that, so it’s time for a radical rethink. I’ve ditched any thought of flowers (and let’s face it, we’re not exactly short of colour here) and I’m trying strawberries instead, using some of the spare plants we had in our bare-rooted bundle a few weeks ago. In place of my usual eucalyptus bark liner, I’ve gone for something completely different but definitely up my street: sheep’s wool. I have been meaning for months (um . . . years?) to sort out a huge bag of Manx Loaghton fleece, much of which is daggy and unspinnable, but which I’ve kept for just such an occasion. It was lovely time spent in the sunshine, putting aside a happy quantity of good stuff – there’s at least another teddy bear’s worth to be spun – and using the rest to make gorgeously deep, warm, soft basket linings. I then put a plant saucer in the base of each and filled the baskets to the top with our home-produced compost, before adding the plants. I’m looking forward to seeing how they go this year- just as long as the birds don’t help themselves to the wool for nests in the meantime!

The orchard makeover a few weeks ago was quite a project but already we are reaping the benefits of all the hard work. With paths dug out and stone steps built in, we can now weave our way around the whole area and climb up and down the steep slope without slipping and sliding like we did before. It is wonderful to be able to wander around and see how quickly things have grown and changed in such a short time. Our newly-planted fruit trees have settled in and are bursting into leaf, whilst the more established ones are scenting the air with their delicate blossoms.

There are wildflowers everywhere and it is incredible how such a rough, stony, inaccesible and ugly corner has been transformed into a delightful carpet of colour, buzzing with life. We certainly listened to the land with this project and nature hasn’t disappointed.

Staying with fruit and it has been quite a steep learning curve for us finding out what will and won’t grow well here. There were peaches, apricots, figs and pears here when we arrived, all of which thrive (as long as the blossom isn’t blasted in spring storms). To those trees we have added apples, cherries, plums, more pears, an orange, a lemon and a plum, all of which grow well locally. Soft fruit hasn’t been such a success. There were summer raspberries here but they were the most tasteless things on earth and even the birds wouldn’t touch them; I replaced them with autumn varieties which I prefer anyway (I think they have a better flavour and they don’t need all that faffing about with wires and cages). Blimey, how they grew, I had raspberry canes everywhere . . . but not a single flower and therefore no fruit, because our winter simply isn’t cold enough to give them the kick they need. Thankfully, the wild strawberries are hugely reliable and grow literally everywhere on our patch so I’m hoping our bigger, cultivated varieties will do as well.

Since we moved here, two local farmers have planted fields of blueberry bushes so that suggested they might grow happily here; well, yes and no. One of our three bushes has died but we did get a sprinkling of berries last year so I think the jury is still out on that one. As a bit of a bonus, though, last summer a mystery physalis plant appeared from nowhere growing out of a wall near the polytunnel. It’s not something we’ve ever grown here but nature obviously decided to plant it on our behalf.

To be honest, I’d pretty much forgotten about it; it set a few fruits but they didn’t mature (and I still didn’t know whether it was a cape gooseberry or a tomatillo) and over winter, the whole plant had disappeared under a swathe of red deadnettle. What a lovely surprise, then, to be foraging last week – it’s amazing how much more attention I pay to things in this lockdown situation, every moment outside is so precious – and find a lovely little picking of sweet and tasty fruits! Roger felt a rich dark chocolate mousse would be just the thing to set them off, and so it was. Here’s another fruit to put on the planting list, then.

Something new we are trying is redcurrants; we’ve always grown them in the past and miss them in summer puddings and redcurrant jelly which is such a useful ingredient in cooking, but we’ve never had them here. We decided to plant the bush below a couple of cardoons at the field end of the vegetable patch but were a bit concerned about the site being too exposed to the prevailing wind. Listening to the land once again, it seemed the obvious thing to do was to plant a small hedge to give a little protection, and what better way of doing that than lifting tree seedlings from around our patch? Well, any excuse for a wander through the woods.

Woodland is an environment that never fails to lift my spirits but there is something particularly special about this time of year when the leaves burst their buds to reveal fresh, glossy, new growth and the birds herald the season in a joyful cacophony of song. I was supposed to be looking for potential seedlings but found my eyes distracted ever upwards.

Luckily, there was no shortage of tiny trees pushing up through the leaf litter and we had soon lifted a collection of mixed varieties, including birch, oak, willow and bay. What a lovely thing, to gather a little part of the woodland to enjoy in the garden; four weeks on, our new hedge is growing vigorously and the redcurrant bush is looking very happy, too.

Back to the confines of the garden and we have been busy this week looking ahead to this year’s new harvests, planting out summer brassicas and lettuce, potting on tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers and squash, sowing beans and courgettes (and sweet peas! 🙂 ) and preparing a patch for the onion seedlings that are almost ready to transplant. There has been so much of the season to enjoy: the first resident swallow swooping through in the evening sunshine, the scurry of lizards everywhere, the busyness of flocks of goldfinches and serins flitting through the orchard, the warble of blackbirds ever earlier in the morning, the incessant bustle of bees and butterflies, the wriggle of fat tadpoles in our tiny pond, the sweep of a soft green haze through the woodlands, the pretty pink ruffles of the first roses and the heady scent of jasmine and freesias by the kitchen door.

My complete absorption in so much beauty and wonder in no way diminishes or trivialises the seriousness of the ongoing global situation; believe me, I am as anxious and concerned as the next person. It’s just that once more, I find great comfort in the continued cycle of the seasons, in the fact that nature goes on, spring happens, new life appears, the garden smiles with flowers and I smile with it. In fact, in these dark days I smile for the whole of humanity. A smile of kindness, a smile of love and a smile of hope. Whoever you are, wherever you are and whatever your situation, I hope that you can smile with me, if only for a moment. 🙂

A-roamin’ with the Romans

For the third year in a row, we are promising ourselves a trip south to the Sierra Nevada to spend a few days doing some serious walking in the mountains in late spring when the alpine flowers are at their best. Maybe this year we will finally get there, but in the meantime we have been enjoying roaming about much nearer to home; in fact, none of the walks we have done over the last couple of weeks has been further than 20 kilometres from home. Much as we both love the challenge of a long, all-day hike with that wonderful freedom of being out and about and self-sufficient on two feet, there’s a lot to be said for shorter walks, too, especially ones that have allowed us to explore local places at our leisure.

Our first wander took us to the top of Pico Paradiella, a mountain that is literally a stone’s throw away; Roger has run up it from home but to my shame, after being here for almost four years, I had never walked up it. Isn’t that often the way? It was what Winnie the Pooh would almost certainly have described as a Very Blustery Day – the wind on the way up was the kind you can lean on – but it was well worth the buffeting for the spectacular views we enjoyed once at the top. The close proximity of the coast still surprises me at times, we spend so much time in the green fastness of our valley that I tend to forget the sea is just over the mountain, and there it was, all turquoise and white and sparkling in the sunshine. The coastal strip is far more populated than our inland area but seen from above there is something joyfully Asturian about the spread of those brightly coloured houses under their terracotta roofs.

Another day, another peak. This time, Pico La Espina, a mountain which is hugely familiar as it dominates our view down the valley from home; unless the cloud is down, we see it every time we go in and out of the house . . . but yet again, it was a mountain I’d never climbed. Time to put that to rights! At 793 metres above sea level, it offers a stunning 360 degrees panoramic view; to the north, the sea lay brooding under a thick bank of cloud, long white fingers of which were creeping steadily towards the coastline; to the south and east, much higher soaring peaks made dramatic, snow-clad statements against the bluest of skies. Geography was one of my very favourite subjects at school and I love an opportunity like this to study the landforms, the sweeps and dips and plains, the curve of rivers and sprawl of forests, the patterns of geology and settlement, climate and altitude that make and shape this unique landscape. Looking from above brings a different and sometimes startling perspective and it was fascinating for once to be looking from this mountain top to home – albeit still shrouded in morning shade apart from the tiniest corner of our meadow.

It never fails to amaze me how we can wind up and up, sometimes passing through the wildest of country to the highest of places, and still find farms, settlements and lush green fields of grazing cattle. Like the closeness of the sea, it is taking me a long time to accept that here height doesn’t necessarily mean bald mountain tops, bleak rocky outcrops or barren, windswept moorlands of tough grasses and even tougher sheep. There is a peace and gentleness to this place and, turning my face to the sun and listening to the exuberant melody of a spiralling lark, I was happy to wrap it around myself .

Of course, it’s not all beauty and wonder; forestry is a big industry here and an elevated position highlights the ugly scars and emptiness left in the wake of clear felling activity. Eucalyptus has been a boon tree for many countries tackling deforestation as it grows so quickly, but in Spain and Portugal it has been too successful, becoming an invasive species that seriously degrades the soil in which it grows. It seems pretty ubiquitous and yet from our lofty perch, as on other recent walks, we could see areas that have been given over to replanting with native species; in fact, there is a wealth of EU-funded programmes and projects devoted to the regeneration of native mixed woodland where the likes of oak, willow, birch, cherry and holly flourish above an understorey of gorse and Spanish heath. Over the next few decades, the Asturian landscape is set to change once again, I feel.

From Pico La Espina we wound our way down to Navelgas to pick up and follow a short stretch of the Ruta de Oro (Gold Route). This is an area where, like so many far-flung places, the Romans left an indelible mark on the landscape and society as they sought gold to fund their ever-expanding empire. The Astures, who had previously lived in small, self-sufficient communities behind the defensive walls of their fortified castros now had to pay tributes for the privilege of being occupied and provide labour for the gold mines as well as food, tools and other necessities. The gold, which they had traditionally collected by panning the river, became a focus of large-scale industry as the Romans introduced technology, including systems of vast canals, which allowed them to shift some two million cubic metres of soil and rock in order to mine two seams of gold. (This would seem like an almost unbelievable statistic if it weren’t for the fact that on our visit to the gold mines at Las Médulas near Ponferrada we saw how the Romans had washed an entire mountain away; nothing, it seems, got between them and the shiny ore they craved). This walk, though, was more about green than gold, winding its way as it does through a beautiful area of broadleaf woodland where birdsong resounded and echoed as if in some cavernous cathedral.

The soft haze of budburst, the carpets of shaggy mosses, the texture and form of gnarled and twisted trunks and the bright explosion of ferns made it feel quite magical. I know at least one small person who would have declared it the undisputed haunt of unicorns and goblins and in truth, the air of enchantment was palpable. I have never seen such an array or profusion of woodland ferns, from the glossy, graceful hart’s tongue to frondier types that grew taller than us; everywhere was green on green, like an incredible lush temperate jungle.

It’s no coincidence that a proliferation of chestnut trees is a feature of the local gold-mining areas; although it is believed the sweet chestnut was already a native here before the legions marched in, the Romans valued them highly and many ancient chestnut woodlands and orchards date back to that time. The trees yielded good timber for building and industry and the nuts provided a nutritious alternative food source to cereals. Chestnuts are without doubt a significant part of the Asturian landscape, culture and cuisine (there are 58,000 hectares of chestnut forest and orchard here) and it was interesting to find the remains of several traditional cuerrias in the woods. These were circular stores with stone walls up to one and a half metres – tall enough to thwart the best efforts of even the most gymnastically-minded wild boar – where chestnuts were stored whole and covered with woodland ferns; once matured, they could then be easily separated from their spiny covers.

There are beech trees, here, too, one of my favourites with their smooth grey trunks and long cigar-shaped buds bursting into the freshest and brightest of greens. They are a native species; indeed, we chose Spanish beech for the worktops and floor when we renovated our kitchen. What is unusual, however, is the way they have evolved to thrive here at altitudes above 300 metres. This is a relatively short walk but the further we went, the more there was to discover and ponder, including the arched entrance to a mine, now flooded with water, and various formations of land and rock that hinted at much ancient human activity. Now, though, nature has reclaimed the space in a way that has brought tranquility and a tremendous thriving biodiversity. Having recently read Isabella Tree’s Wilding, I found the wise words of Ted Green the tree expert reflected in the plethora of dead wood and stumps that have been left in situ, so essential for wildlife, the ecosystem and the planet.

We returned home via the Valle de Paredes, one of my favourite haunts on account of the incomparable beauty of the Esva river and its gorge. San Pedro de Paredes is a charming and friendly village, which according to tales from the Middle Ages was once part of the Camino de Santiago. The valley boasts evidence of much older civilisations, too, in the form of a dolmen and menhir, but it is perhaps the romanesque architecture and, in particular, the sweeping double-arched bridge in San Pedro that really capture the imagination; those Romans were a busy bunch for sure!

Our coastal walk from the village of Oviñana to the Cabo Vidio lighthouse and the Playa de Vallina provided a complete contrast to the mountains and woodlands we had visited, almost like a little tapas meal of Asturian delights. We are running in a 10k race here later in the month and I was interested to get a feel for the route and to explore a new stretch of coastline. The scenery, as ever, was stunning.

We wandered along the clifftop path where in places the drop below us was almost vertical. Here there is a treasure trove of fascinating wildlife, but perhaps some of the most interesting species are those we were unable to see. Out to sea, there is a system of submarine canyons dropping to 1200 metres and scientists have made some astonishing discoveries in these secret depths, including cold water coral reefs and turtles that have made the epic journey from South America. Most intriguing of all is the giant squid. Unlike its smaller cousins, it is not fished for as it is inedible due to the large amount of ammonia in its body – probably no bad thing since it grows to 14 metres long and weighs in at an incredible 250 kilos. What a creature!

Walking a kilometre or so down a winding, woodland path we emerged onto the Playa de Vallina and, as on so many of our other beach trips, we had the vast sweep of it to ourselves. Like the Ruta de Oro, here too there was evidence of human activity and industry from earlier times with a couple of old mills bearing testament to the power of the stream that disappears underground on reaching the beach.

The beach itself is quite unusual in being mostly composed of small stones rather than the sand we tend to find elsewhere but the rock formations with their tilted, tortured angles and deep splashes of mineral colour were very familiar.

What a wonderfully wild spot, with the surge and suck of the waves making the pebbles jump like peas on a drum and the plaintive cries of seabirds wheeling overhead. Not for the first time – and I am certain not for the last, either – I found myself experiencing a profound sense of gratitude for being able to enjoy this most beautiful of places. ¡Gracias, Asturias!

One of the things I love most about days out like this is the picnic and I’d like to sing out in support of this humble little meal. Picnics surely must be one of the simplest pleasures in life, a joyful celebration of food, nature and the great outdoors all rolled into one. I think it’s a shame to consign them to good weather only; like a barbecue, get your clothes and the food right and a picnic in the snow can be an amazing, life-affirming experience.

Redes Natural Park, the perfect spot for a picnic in the snow. A flask of piping hot squash and chilli soup really hit the spot. (I always carry a bin bag in my rucksack so there’s never a need for a wet backside wherever we stop to eat!)
Picnic places should always be interesting and a bit of shade is a bonus in the heat of summer.

There’s a lot to be said for a picnic breakfast, too! I also believe it’s well worth making a bit of effort over the food rather than defaulting to the ubiquitous sandwich, crisps and chocolate bar, for several reasons. First, there are far healthier, tastier and more interesting options. Second, knowing that your cool box, hamper, rucksack or whatever is full of delicious things to eat brings a wonderful sense of anticipation – especially important if you are hiking any distance first to earn it. Third, there is such a wealth of portable culinary possibilities to be explored and preparing tasty, wholesome food with love and attention, even in tiny quantities, is a lot of fun. Making full use of the freezer or drying and preserving our fresh produce means that even the most spontaneous of picnic decisions can be furnished with some yummy pre-prepared treats.

Dried slices of kiwi and shelled walnuts make perfect picnic treats from the garden.

Sam and Adrienne introduced us to the delights of spinach and goat’s cheese pasties on our rambles with them across the South Downs; they are fabulous finger food and we have enjoyed putting our own spin on that idea, using an Asturian sheep’s cheese and baby chard from the garden. Roger – who I swear has gone totally native – has taken to making bollos preñaos asturianos, hearty bread rolls with a lump of chorizo baked into the middle. I’m not a vegetarian but I do prefer my bread to be free of resident pig bits so for me, homemade hummus is the perfect picnic food. Hummus is the easiest thing on earth to make: for a basic recipe, simply take the vegetable of your choice and blitz it in a blender with a good dollop of tahini, garlic cloves, a glug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Traditionally, of course, it’s based on chickpeas but really, let your imagination go wild with this one! We use white beans a lot because, unlike chickpeas, we grow them in the garden; I love carrot or beetroot, cooked or raw, whizzed up with coriander, cumin, walnuts and orange zest and juice, rather than lemon; peas and broad beans with mint, basil or dill make a sublime summer version. Mixes of leftover roast vegetables are fantastic. Honestly, if you can blitz it, you can hummus it! At this time of year, squash is on our to-use list every day; we still have a pile of them stored in the horreo and we know they won’t keep beyond May.

Just some of the squash we grew last year . . .

With the stove lit every evening, it’s no bother to throw together a tray of chopped squash (skin-on unless it’s a toughie), garlic cloves, chopped chillies (wowzer, my frozen Scotch bonnets from last year are really something else!) and whatever spices or herbs come to hand, then drizzle the lot in olive oil and roast until soft. This makes the perfect base for a soup – great in a thermos flask for picnics on cold days – but scraped into a blender and whizzed up into hummus, it is the stuff of dreams.

Homemade crispbreads, squash hummus and a lentil salad – perfect for lunch at home and equally good on the move.

All that’s missing now is a salad and what goes into that will depend very much on the season. If we are short of plentiful candidates from the garden, then something based on lentils or bulgar wheat makes a good, hearty base; otherwise, it’s a case of wandering about last-minute and picking a pot of fresh, tasty, colourful gorgeousness to complement the starchier elements. Salads hold up amazingly well on picnics; they even survive long walks in hot weather as long as they’re packed properly. Believe me, here is no excuse for soggy slices of cucumber and tomato. Ever. ¡Buen provecho! 🙂

This week’s salad from the garden: red mustard, red and green mizuna, shungiku, rocket (two types), landcress, komatsuna, pak choi, baby beetroot leaves, broccoli, peas, spring onions, mint, chives, coriander flowers and calendula petals. The only bought additions were olives and capers. Delicious eaten in the fresh sea air at Cabo Vidio!

The road less travelled

Often footsore, never
Yet of the road I weary,                  
Though long and steep and dreary,
As it winds on for ever.

Edward Thomas

Having recently celebrated another year in my life’s journey, I’ve been giving some thought to what it feels like for me to be 53 (my goodness, that old?! 🙂 ). I know it’s a cliché but I certainly feel like the older I get, the less I know – yet the more I want to learn, experience and feel. By that, I don’t mean I have an urge to travel the world, gain more qualifications, chase adrenaline highs, break records or spend my time ticking a pile of items off a long and crazy bucket list. Quite the opposite, in fact; something I have come to realise more and more in recent years is that when life is lived simply and I allow myself to be open to all possibilities, even the smallest experiences can be of immense value. Life-changing, even. The path might not always be easy or clear, but anything that helps to keep me physically fit and active, gives my brain a good workout, encourages creativity, bolsters my sense of fun and helps me keep a sense of wonder is treasure indeed.

This was all brought home to me this week when we spent a day exploring a local walking route on the excuse that Sam and Adrienne are coming to stay with us in January. Our time with them is always golden (especially so now they live in Norway) and generally revolves around lots of good food and hiking so we like to have at least one new walk up our sleeve for when they visit. The Esva gorge is probably my favourite walk here and one I never tire of, so I was very excited to be following a different circular route that would bring us to it from a completely new direction. Starting in the village of Naraval, about half an hour’s drive from home, we climbed gently through green meadows in a quintessential Asturian landscape.

The next section came as something of a surprise, though, and was a reminder that the only constant in life is change; it had been billed as several kilometres of forest . . . but the trees had been harvested, the forest gone and in its place, a wide expanse of empty moorland. Mmm. Now I love a bit of woodland so disappointment was my first reaction but, on further reflection, I could see the positive side. It seems that the area is being left to regenerate naturally as part of a rural forestry project, rather than being planted with the ubiquitous eucalyptus, and the resulting dense undergrowth was thick with bird life. Is this rewilding in action?

At the same time, the open landscape gave us the chance to enjoy some spectacular views and – what still always come to me as a surprise in such a mountainous region – those vast expanses and sweeps of sky.

Several kilometres into our walk and we decided to perch on a rock and enjoy a flask of strong, Spanish coffee and some home made mince pies. Is it me, or does coffee take on a whole new delicious flavour at times like this, that nutty roasted aroma curling up out of the flask into the December air? The mince pies weren’t bad either; I’ve been playing about with my mincemeat recipe this year as I couldn’t find some key ingredients but I have to say cranberries for currants, butter for suet and walnuts for almonds have been great exchanges. The star, though, is the home made candied peel: why, oh why, have I ever bought pots of that sticky, gloopy stuff when it is child’s play to make and a hundred times more delicious? I’m definitely not too old to learn new tricks! Anyway, back to our walk and, suitably refreshed, we carried on until suddenly the top of the gorge appeared in front us. Looking across at the mountain opposite, we could see a path we have followed before, winding its way across the mountainside; when we are on it, it feels completely wild, a bit like a remote cliff edge hanging over a dizzying height – quite funny to see another path and houses above it, then!

It is almost impossible to capture the scale and beauty of this place in a photo, the gorge plummeting in a deep, steep-sided fissure, the rocky sides clothed in a blanket of trees, layer upon layer. My woodland at last! A little sunshine would have set the view alight but even without it, there were enough leaves to burnish the landscape with the metallic brights of late autumn.

We stood and watched a black kite wheeling gracefully above us on silent wings, its forked tail printing a perfect V against the sky. Below us, the tumbledown ruins of a stone cottage, the remains of a bread oven still visible in one dilapidated wall. Was it courage or madness to have built a home here, hauling and shaping and placing blocks of stone to create a shelter in such an eyrie?

Things really started to get interesting now as we began our descent following a path known as Las Vueltas del Gato (Cat Bends). This is an ancient drovers’ path, used by the vaqueiros to move their cattle from the valley bottom to the higher pastures for summer grazing in the practice of transhumance. I love paths like this with their deep sense of history and rural tradition, that faint whisper and echo of thousands of footsteps that have passed this way before. Two things are certain: the building of this path was an incredible feat of engineering and both man and beast that followed it must have been very sure-footed because blimey, that is one heck of a route!

It was like going down a steep rocky stream bed which felt near vertical in places (I exaggerate only slightly, I really was wishing I’d taken my trusty stick at this point) and made incredibly tight turns in tricky places. No question of not concentrating, we had to watch every step as we zigzagged down, making a point of stopping here and there to enjoy the view. It was an incredible descent – 170 metres’ drop in 500 metres of walking – and I have to admit, I was happy to be going down: the climb up would be something else!

The further down the path we travelled, the louder the sound of rushing water became until at last, we glimpsed the glassy green of a river between the trees. Well, rivers, actually. In front of us, the serene río Navelgas-Barcena  and to our right, the busy, chattering río Naraval; they meet on a wide sweeping bend in a pool of deep, clear water, their union giving birth to the beautiful río Esva.

What a completely magical spot this is, I could quite happily sit here for hours just drinking in the peace and magic of the place. There was such a strong sense of nature in the raw, the sheer activity and power of fresh water on its ceaseless journey, deftly carving a sinuous pathway through the land. Here the mirrored silver of slower stretches, there the bright foamy babble over rocks; so much movement, so much energy, so much sound. The skeletal trees, too, told their own story, their gnarled trunks and branches cloaked in soft moss and spattered with starry lichen, the last leaves fluttering down around us like silent feathers. What a feast for the senses. What a perfect moment in life. Money could not buy this.

This was the lowest point of our walk so we decided it was a good place to eat our picnic lunch before beginning the long trek back. As the next section involved wading across the río Naraval, we thought it wiser not to risk soggy sandwiches (for the same reason, Roger was in charge of the camera – if anyone fell in, it would be me). The route directions said that it was usually possible to cross the river this way and thankfully it was, as the thought of having to climb back up Las Vueltas del Gato didn’t fill me with too much joy. This sort of carry on does, though; I mean, how often do we do daft things like this? and why don’t we do them more often? Just the simple sensation of forest floor beneath my bare feet, then rocks, then chilly water was enough to make me giggle with the sheer childlike exuberance of being alive. The boulders were slippery, the pools deep in places and the water moving at a fair old lick but I made it across without dropping my boots or falling in. Brilliant fun !

Feet dried, boots back on and toes tingling and warm again, we walked along the tree-lined banks of the río Navelgas-Barcena  before turning upwards into a long climb. The path was certainly easier than those Cat Bends, rising steadily through a mixed forest and giving us glimpses across the valley to where we had been earlier.

At the top of a rise, we came to a four-way crossing and hit a bit of a snag; as an official walking route, the AS-287, the way had been marked pretty clearly so far but just as we really needed a sign, there was nothing apart from a couple of ambiguously placed yellow and white crosses to indicate where we shouldn’t go. Our map and directions (which had lost so much in translation they were almost like a third language) weren’t much help either, as both had suddenly become very vague. In the end, we plumped for what we hoped was the right turn (well, left in fact) and set off along several kilometres of gently climbing path which wound its way through a coniferous forest.

The trees had very much been planted for a harvest, their formal rows and grids so different from the wild tangle of the woodland below, but there is still a charm to stretches of forest like this, the sharp pine scent, soft carpet of needles and a wealth of spiralled cones.

The route we were following was supposed to be 14 kilometres (8.7 miles) in total and we were within a couple of kilometres from the road that would take us back to our starting point when we turned a corner to see this . . .

Now fallen trees and boulders are a fairly common occurrence here and we have found ourselves scrambling over or wriggling under such obstacles on numerous occasions. This, however, was more than just a fallen tree and the throaty growl of machinery beyond suggested that scrambling over would be pointless; there was a major forest harvest in full swing and the whole path had become completely impassable. Nothing for it but to retrace our steps and try to find an alternative route over the mountain and down to the road. At this point, I was thankful for several things: the fact that we hadn’t scoffed our whole picnic by the river but still had apples and water in our rucksacks; the fact that there were still a few hours of daylight left; the fact that my feet and legs felt like they could manage the extra miles that were now inevitable; mostly, the fact that we both have a good sense of direction and a good sense of humour – both would be needed in the next couple of hours! There’s a choice in this kind of situation, isn’t there? Either feel frustrated, cross or hopeless and turn it into some kind of drama or look on it as an adventure, part of life’s rich tapestry and deal with it . . . which is what we did. After all, we weren’t lost exactly, just not completely sure where we were and common sense told us there had to be another way down; there was, of course, it just added another six kilometres (3.7 miles) or so to our walk. Ah, well. Onward, my love.

We finally arrived back in the village of Naraval, crossing the river of the same name once again but using a modern road bridge this time – no need for bare feet here. The charming old stone bridge was still there, too, another ancient reminder of times gone by, when the pace of life was slower and bridges only needed to carry feet and hooves across the water. Time for us to head home and reflect on the adventure we’d had, such a precious and enriching experience in a very special landscape and so many miles without seeing another soul. It seemed that nature hadn’t quite finished with us, though: what a perfect ending to a wonderful day. 🙂

Dye another day

Mere colour can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.

Oscar Wilde

I love colour. I love bold blocks of brights and paler ribbons of pastels; I love wide, sweeping brushstrokes and precise pointillist dots; I love the way harmonious shades melt together with heart-aching beauty and others clash in eye-opening shock; I love colours smudged and blurred like hazy rainbows or making strong statements in sharp outlines. I believe colour really does speak to the soul in a thousand different ways and for me, there is no greater source of this sumptuous soul food than in nature. Even grey skies have a singular beauty.

What a delight, then, to have the chance to spend a couple of nights recently on the Galician coast and drink in the colour and character of that wild landscape. I have to come clean and admit that I’m always left feeling a bit undecided about Galicia whenever we visit. Much of it is picturesque rolling green countryside clothed in densely wooded hillsides and draped with vineyards currently aflame in the glory of their autumn colours. The Atlantic coast is a gem, all wide estuaries and squiggly islands fringed in white-sanded beaches and studded with intriguing rock formations.

So, why do I struggle to love it? Well, after Asturias it just always seems so very busy, so full of buildings and traffic and people, the coastal roads snaking through miles and miles of built-up areas with only rare glimpses of the countryside beyond. Understandably, tourism is huge; there is a plethora of campsites, hotels, restaurants, bars and the like, many closed or looking slightly forlorn now the tourist season is over, all serving what must be an immense influx of holiday makers over the summer months. I’m not being critical, just saying all this busyness is not for me . . . and happily – as in so many other places – once you leave the hustle and bustle and impact of human activity behind, there are many stunning wild spaces that really hit the sweet spot. Even when it’s pouring with rain.

Yes, the weather was spiteful with blustery, heavy showers becoming more organised into almost 24 hours of torrential downpours as glowering skies dumped what felt like much of the Atlantic Ocean on our heads. Still, nothing daunted, we set out to make the most of it; it’s the first time in many, many months my hiking trousers and jacket have been out for an airing but they’re wonderfully waterproof so I was as dry and warm as toast – still looking skywards for enough blue to make a pair of sailor’s trousers, though! Well, a little optimism never hurt anyone.

This was the Playa Con Negro near O Grove, billed on a wooden signpost as ‘nature’s art park’ and there was no arguing with that; it was like landing in a surreal Henry Moore -inspired landscape or – to my rather overactive imagination – a giants’ battlefield from some ancient folk tale. Certainly, the geology hinted at past times of terrible turbulence and violence, immense granite boulders hurled into precarious positions and sculpted into spellbinding shapes. What an extraordinary place.

Between the dominant monoliths were veins of a different darker rock, tortured and twisted and shattered into sinuous strata, all sharp edges and angles in complete contrast to the smooth curves of the lighter, speckled granite.

Caught in hollows and gullies were rock pools, the crystal clear water revealing a captivating spectrum of colours in the rock. Reds, greens, oranges, yellows . . . now this is definitely my thing.

What isn’t my thing is litter and it was sad to find several plastic drinks bottles (and, rather bizarrely, a Fairy Liquid bottle), glass bottles, cartons and other plastic detritus scattered across the otherwise pristine sandy beaches. It’s likely they had been washed up by the tide rather than discarded in situ but either way, they shouldn’t be there. We gathered them up and placed them in recycling bins provided in the car park but given the whole issue of plastic in the oceans, it felt like the tip of an enormous iceberg. The area, quite rightly, has protected status as a special natural environment; there is no charge to park or to visit and you can wander wherever you like to enjoy and appreciate the raw beauty of the place. It is a privilege to do so and there should be no question of a single piece of rubbish being there. Ever.

On a happier note, though, I am always amazed and comforted by nature’s resilience and the sheer adaptability and determination of living things to thrive, even against all odds. From a distance, this landscape might seem barren, almost lunar in character, but on close inspection the rocks were carpeted in lichen and even the tiniest cracks boasted a variety of courageous plants making little wild gardens full of colour.

We wandered up the coast a short way and the sun decided to put in a welcome appearance, albeit very briefly. Incredible how that shift in light altered the colour in the landscape, filling the rockpools with fragments of blue sky.

Mmm, look at those beautiful blues and greens now, that creamy pink sand. Where’s my spinning wheel? 🙂

We crossed the sweeping curve of a bridge from the mainland to the Illa de Arousa and spent several hours wandering along the coastpath and beaches there. Once again, this was just our sort of place, much of it a special nature reserve with protected nesting sites for the multitude of wading birds scurrying and stabbing along the tideline and regeneration projects focused on the dunes, wetlands and native woodland.

The beaches were breathtakingly beautiful and literally carpeted with shells. My goodness, I can’t remember the last time I saw so many in one place.

Isn’t beachcombing a joy? We found ourselves totally absorbed, heads down, sifting through the piles for beauties that caught our eye. The shapes, structures, colours and patterns were exquisite and some of them were so tiny, I could sit several on a fingernail. If I were an artist I would have felt inspired to create something with such an engaging medium, a sort of impulsive, indulgent Andy Goldsworthy moment on the beach; as it was, I simply looked and touched and enjoyed . . . and thought of wool.

Where inspiration was concerned, the beaches hadn’t quite finished with me yet; there was so much colour and texture in the seaweed and plant life amongst the dunes. Forget the tourist attractions, this is all I need. Grazas, Galicia!

Home to Asturias, my head reeling with possibilities and a need to play with more natural dyes; this desperate urge has far outstripped my ability to spin white skeins quickly so I’ve been dipping lengths of wool top instead. The simple pleasure of gathering plant material from the garden and turning it into a dye is just perfect, although I’m going to have to address the mordant issue eventually. My latest little experiment has been with the French marigolds that have been blooming for months, two self-set plants that have mushroomed through the summer to shrub proportions and are covered in literally hundreds of blooms; there’s plenty to go round so I felt the bumbles could spare me a few.

I’m getting quite lazy with this process already, simmering a pile of flower heads for a while then throwing in the wool without straining the plant material off first. The flowers produced a gorgeous ruby colour in the dyepot . . .

. . . and turned the wool a pale, creamy, ‘barely there’ yellow. Out of idle interest, I snipped a small piece and dunked it in an alkali bath. Wowzer, now we’re talking! What a shade. In went half the wool. I’m already planning projects for these two, and as overdyeing yellow with indigo is a good way to get greens, I decided to dry another pile of those marigolds for further forays into the world of yellow. It’s good to plan ahead, don’t you think?

When Roger wandered into the kitchen and observed in his patiently resigned way that ‘the woolly stuff goes on and on and on‘ I had to admit – after a cursory glance around – that he had a point. Various bits and skeins of dyed fleece and silk were hanging from the overhead airer, going through the final drying process; a further batch was simmering on top of The Beast in a pot of marigold soup; the exploded body parts of a half-crocheted teddy were scattered across the coffee table, which itself was thrust out into the room to make space for my spinning wheel (sporting a bobbin partly spun) by the sofa; almost an entire work surface, save for the bit where flower heads were spread out to dry, was covered in lengths of fleece and silk being carded into fluffy rolags whilst numerous baskets and bags of projects started or projects-in-waiting were scattered across the floor. This is not to mention the growing pile of knitted jumpers and crocheted teddies mounting up in the bedroom so that I don’t forget to pack them for our UK trip next month. Even by my lackadaisical standards, I realised that something had to be done: much as I love wool, drowning in a sea of it is probably not how I’d choose to take my last gasp. Death-by-flowers neither, for that matter.

I started by finishing the teddy so it could join its friends in preparation for the journey. Along with a patchwork crochet blanket and some knitted finger puppets, these colourful bears have helped me to finish up a huge pile of yarn scraps this year, something I’m feeling very chuffed about. I’m hoping they will bring some smiles to little faces and the packets of sunflower seeds saved from our patch and hidden in their bags will help to spread the gardening love.

Next, I made a concerted effort to tidy up the finished dyeing projects and put them into safe storage until required. I couldn’t resist a little photo call first, a sort of ‘madder three ways’ moment – it’s a bit like a trio of desserts but better for the waistline.

I’m normally very slapdash with finished skeins but given that I’m hoping to build a reasonable collection over time, I appreciate the need for careful labelling so I can identify everything in the future: type(s) of fibre, yardage, weight (by which I really mean mass in grams) and ‘weight’ as in thickness, as well as information about the dyeing process. I find to my surprise that it’s actually quite a satisfying thing to do.

Putting them carefully into storage in the attic, I was congratulating myself on how I’d managed to start turning a box of plain fleece into more useful supplies and used up most of my spare yarn when a little bag of forgotten bits caught my eye: several ends of balls left over from previous sock knitting projects. On their own, they don’t amount to much but together weighed in at a couple of hundred grams which is enough for two pairs of adult socks. I sorted them into two vague colour schemes, one based on greens, the other on blues and purples and decided to launch into a brand new project (oh come on, I’d finished the teddies . . .): introducing Operation Scrappy Socks.

Now I am the first to admit that these are probably going to look pretty ridiculous knitted in large bands of totally mismatched self-patterning yarn but then, does it really matter? (By the way, I’m finding it a really fun way of working, but maybe that’s just my warped sense of humour.) As far as I’m aware, not too many people go round studying my socks and to be honest, if it’s cold enough to be wearing them then they’re going to be hidden under long trousers and inside slippers or boots most of the time. I’m not overly happy with the idea of knots but then plenty of sock patterns use more than one yarn colour so it’s not like I’m committing some dreadful crime and at the end of the day, I’d rather use the yarn than waste it. Anyway, there’s something about the season in these greens that pleases me. Whether the finished articles are funky, freaky or just downright daft they will keep my feet snug and give me a few more Brownie points on the waste not, want not scale. That’s a win-win, I’d say.

Now it’s time for a bit of a confession – well, quite a lot of one, in truth – on the subject of my attempt not to buy any new yarn this year. I’ve tried so hard to stay on the yarn wagon and I managed nearly ten months but I’m afraid to say, I’ve taken a bit of a tumble and bought a new blanket project. I do feel a wee bit guilty BUT in my defence, there is a very good reason for it, namely that I wanted to order a yarn kit from the UK and with Brexit looming with all the uncertainties regarding tariffs, international postage and the like I thought it better to buy now rather than wait until January and run into possible problems. It’s a sad fact that several small family businesses I use for things like seeds have postponed all orders from outside the UK until they know what’s happening so I feel slightly justified in my decision. Of course, what I really, really should do is hide the yarn away and promise not to start the blanket until the New Year. Yep . . . and pigs might fly! 🙂

How to dye happy

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.

Frank Lloyd Wright

One of the unexpected consequences of deciding to start blogging when we lived in France six years ago is the pleasure I have developed in taking pictures. I am not a very good photographer but I love wandering about snapping this and that and it’s amazing just how many of my posts start with a set of photos – or maybe even a single one – rather than an event or idea. For me, it’s an ongoing exploration of a new world of creativity, albeit at a very basic level; no doubt there are zillions of settings on the camera I haven’t discovered yet and don’t even get me started on Photoshop and the like. Like so many of the practical activities I enjoy, it’s simply about being in the moment and having fun. My current obsession is capturing skies.

With this in mind, having been granted permission to walk in the stunning Muniellos Nature Reserve once again last week, the camera was the first thing packed in my rucksack. As luck would have it, the battery ran out the day before so we could charge it fully in readiness for what I hoped would be some beautiful shots during our 20 kilometre walk. We can’t have been more than a couple of hundred metres along the path before the first photographic opportunity presented itself and . . . disaster! The camera wouldn’t work. There wasn’t so much as a spark of life. Nothing. Nada. Dead as a dodo. Not even all the jiggling and poking and manly checking of things mechanical by Roger could coax it back into life (it transpired the battery had somehow discharged itself overnight which theoretically it isn’t supposed to do.) Well, darn it. Needless to say, apart from hoping for some lovely photos to compare with our first walk here last June, there was an embryonic blog post taking shape in my hind brain and now it would have to be ditched.

Or would it? On reflection, I decided I would go ahead anyway for two reasons. The first is that I can recycle some old photos into the post; yes, the ones of the walk were taken in June rather than October but at least they give an idea of the scale of the landscape in which we were walking. In a nutshell, Muniellos Nature Reserve is an area of protected ancient deciduous woodland – some of the oldest in Europe – which covers almost 55 square kilometres and the circular walk rises to 1400 metres, making it higher than any peak in the UK. It is believed to be the best preserved oak forest in Spain and is home to a wealth of tree species and wildlife, including wolves and the Cantabrian brown bear. Access is by prior permission only, individuals can only apply to visit once in any twelve months and no more than twenty people are allowed access each day; astonishingly, it is completely free of charge.

For me, this place is about as close as it comes to paradise. Imagine standing on the side of a mountain, completely surrounded by mixed deciduous woodland which sweeps right to the tops of the rocky peaks as far as the eye can see in every direction. Apart from possibly nineteen other people, there is absolutely nothing of mankind here: no roads or buildings, no fields or farms, no pipelines or pylons, no fences or gates, no machines, no man-made noise. These unspoilt forests are as they have been for millennia, wild and beautiful, pure unbridled nature in the raw; it is a rewilder’s greatest dream. I cannot begin to describe what an utter privilege it is to spend time walking, looking and thinking in this most precious of environments.

So, my second reason for writing this post is actually the very fact that the camera didn’t work; yes, it’s frustrating not to have the images but in reality, it meant spending the whole day totally focused and absorbed with what was going on around us. We would only have memories to take away and making them meant indulging in a masterclass in ‘mindfulness,’ being completely aware and present in each moment without the distraction of technology. To be honest, it was bliss.

The walk is a tough one and definitely not for wimps. First timers have a long and detailed briefing from the warden before setting off and fairly strict times have to be adhered to as the gates are locked at night. It’s no exaggeration to say there are a couple of sections that find me literally crawling on all fours across a rock face on the way up (and very much not looking down) and the first hour of descent is no stroll in the park either as it follows a steep,rocky and perilously slippery stream bed. It’s necessary to keep eyes on the path much of the time so regular stops are needed to drink in those stunning vistas; otherwise, it’s a great opportunity to focus on the small things. How beautiful the perfect symmetry of a fallen oak leaf, half yellow, half green and studded with pearly rain drops; what a treat for the fingertips the knotted fissures of oak bark, the smooth striations of papery birch, the lacy haze of lichen; what colour and texture and form in starbursts of fungi at every turn.

Although we chatted to each other now and then, much of our six hour hike was spent in companionable silence. This is partly because on walks like this, Roger leaps and hops confidently from boulder to boulder like the proverbial mountain goat while I flail along several metres behind like a nervous mountain giraffe (I’ll leave that image with you for a moment 🙂 ) but also because somehow talking here just seemed, well, rude – like making dirty footprints in a pristine carpet of snow or pulling the petals off a rare flower. Human voices felt like an unnecessary intrusion in nature’s symphony and being quiet and simply listening, I tuned in to far more nuances of sound: the rush and chatter of the river, bursts of birdsong, the gentle whisper of the breeze and the way it played different melodies through birch, oak and holly, the hollow clomp of my boots across rocky scree slopes and the softer thud on packed earth, the sounds of my breath and heart constant reminders of being alive in this wonderful, invigorating place. What a completely magical moment to stand in silent stillness together and watch a pair of ibex on the rocky slope above us, such elegant, statuesque creatures.

Although we were a little early for the full glory of the autumn colours (no surprise that the rest of October was fully booked!), there was a plentiful feast for the eyes and it wasn’t long before I realised that instead of looking at my surroundings through a viewfinder, I was using the lens of my dyer’s eye.

What word would I choose to describe that precise colour of beech leaves as they melt from their fresh summer greens into buttery yellow? How could I create the flaming russet fringe of feathery bracken or the pinker dusky rose of bilberry bushes or the flamboyant screaming scarlet of jewelled rowan berries? Would a light touch of palest grey, a fine detail of charcoal and a splash of the most delicate soft sage green do justice to a lichen-encrusted birch branch? As for the fungi, where to start . . ?

Six hours, two sore feet and a very happy heart later it was time to say goodbye to Muniellos once again, but with my head ringing with the earthy delights of bark and berry, leaf and lichen, moss and mushroom and everything else that creates the essence and spirit of all things sylvan, I was already planning an appointment with my dyepot . . .

My first thought was to finish spinning a current skein of Romney, then try to recreate a mix of some of the colours I had enjoyed as we wandered through that vast forest. However, on reflection, what I felt I had brought home with me from Muniellos was a deep awareness of unblemished nature and this should be my starting point rather than any specific ideas of colour and shade. Yes, the time had come to finally stop procrastinating and try some natural dyeing. For anyone who knows me, it may seem strange that so far my forays into Dyeing World have involved synthetic dyes rather than natural dyestuffs but there is a good (or at least, thought-provoking) reason for this. Most plant materials used for dyeing are adjective, which means the fibre needs to be treated with a mordant (from Latin mordere – to bite) in order to fix the pigment. The most commonly used mordants are alum, iron, copper and tin – all metal salts, none of which is particularly pleasant and some of which are downright poisonous. Every time I have teetered on the edge of having a go I’ve drawn back, wondering if this is really any better for the environment than the specialist acid dyes I’ve used so far.

Time for some research, then, and in particular into which tiny number of plant dyes are substantive and therefore not in need of a mordant . . . and how thrilled was I to find that top of the list was walnut, both hulls and leaves. Now walnut trees are not native to Spain, but they’ve been here a long time – since the Romans brought them, in fact – they grow like stink and we have a whole nuttery of them. How perfect for my ‘essence of woodland’ dyeing adventure.

To make the dyebath, I collected green walnut leaves straight from the tree, chopped them into small pieces to help yield more dye and simmered them in spring water on top of The Beast for an hour or so until the liquid was a rich caramel brown. What a lovely, spicy, herbal smell – definitely far better than those chemical dyes. Roger said it smelt like something good was cooking!

I usually prefer to dye skeins of spun yarn but as this was a huge learning experience I decided to opt for combed Merino top instead and, just out of interest (this felt like a day for being daring), I added a small amount of unbleached tussah silk as well. My plan was that if everything went pear- shaped at least with unspun fleece I had more rescue options than with spun yarn.

Normally, I soak the fibre in a commercial wool scourer before dyeing; I expect raw fleece to be dirty, smelly and greasy but it’s amazing just how grubby the commercially washed stuff is, too. However, in the spirit of all things natural, I used the tiniest amount of an eco washing-up liquid instead.

I strained the dyebath, returned it to the pot and cooled it a little, then in went the fibres. I simmered them gently for half an hour then removed them from the heat and left the whole lot to steep overnight.

The next morning revealed the final colour, which had deepened from a pale latte to a creamy coffee fudge in the wool and an even deeper shade of brown in the silk, which I found interesting. Obviously, the silk was a darker shade to start with but whenever I’ve coloured it with chemical dyes before, it has always come out several shades lighter than the wool.

I could see straight away what a different quality this natural dye had to a chemical one, softer and more alive somehow as if smudged and blended from a range of shades like a muted rainbow. Those harsh synthetic edges just weren’t there. What’s more, there was enough dyebath (which interestingly smelled of prunes!) left to keep and use again – and if I didn’t want to do that, the spent leaves and liquid could simply go on the compost heap without causing any environmental concerns. Well, how wonderful. Now I was on a roll. Why stop there? I mean, if you’re going to experiment with something new and interesting, you might as well do it properly: enter the world of modifiers. Basically, dyeing is chemistry and much of what unfolds is down to pH as much as anything else (also the quality of water – it’s no coincidence that dyeing workshops used to be located in soft water areas). By steeping the dyed fibre in an acid or alkaline modifier it is possible to change the shade and so create several colours from one dyestuff and so I decided this had to be done, at least with the wool. I made an acid bath from citric acid crystals and water and an alkaline one from washing soda and water; no need to heat again, just pop the fibre in . . . anything that’s going to happen apparently does so within half an hour. The change in the acid bath was so subtle as to be barely noticeable; I’m interested to see if there is a greater difference once the wool has dried. The alkaline bath couldn’t have been a more different story. Wow! What’s fascinating isn’t just the extreme change to a more yellow colour but the range of different shades that appeared, including a very deep brown and reddish rusty colour.

Hung out to dry in morning shade. From left to right: unbleached tussah silk without modifier, Merino with alkaline modifier, Merino without modifier, Merino with acid modifier. The actual colours are richer than the photo suggests.
In afternoon sunlight, starting to dry and fluff up again. These colours are truer: can’t wait to get spinning! 🙂

Well, I am just so very happy! This is exactly what I’ve wanted dyeing to be and I feel completely inspired to continue, albeit in the knowledge that at some point I am going to have to confront the issue of mordants once again. In the meantime, I have another substantive dye – madder root – to play with and a wealth of natural seasonal beauty on the doorstep to inspire and feed my colour habit. Not a bad way to dye, don’t you think? 🙂