Woodlands and other wanderings

It has been hot here this week which is no surprise, really; it is August after all, and the sun is still high and strong. It’s the sort of weather that draws many people to spend their days on the beaches, but for me the loveliest thing is an early morning walk through the woods. First, I like to take my breakfast outside and enjoy it accompanied by the sounds and activity of the garden waking up: the flitting of small birds about their business, the low buzz of the early bumble bees, the whicker of blackbirds as a pole cat silently stalks the hedgerows, the garrulous natter of crows and jays in the woods, the joyful chatter of swallows tumbling around the sky. In keeping with the general culture here, our neighbours are late risers, so there is a peace to the village below, no sound or movement apart from the babble of the river and the occasional strident cockerel. Breakfast done and the woods call me.

Climbing the hill from home, I stop to turn and enjoy the view; in the west, the mountain tops are already illuminated, the waning moon a fading thumb print pressed into a lightening sky.

There is something very special about this quiet time of day under the trees. The smell of morning is unique, caught in the liminal time between the cooling balm of night and crisp heat of day. The eucalyptus, which exudes a sharp herbal scent after rain and a pungent spicy scent in warmth, now has a soft mintiness to it that allows other scents to come to the fore. Is it possible to smell in green? I’m quite sure that’s what I do, breathing in the essence of all that lush vegetation, the swollen growth of full summer.

If I could only ever have one flower in my life it would be honeysuckle. It is blooming now as much as it was in May, its delicate filigree flowers twining and climbing through branches and releasing the headiest of perfumes that wafts through the trees as I walk. Sublime.

Of the broadleaf trees, it is the chestnuts that make me smile the most at this time of year. In spring, they are tardy lie-a-beds, all bare branch and tight bud while everything around them flaunts bright plumes of fresh foliage. Then follows the race to catch up and overtake, elbowing their way into the woodland procession with branches thrown high and wide and a swanky, tiered canopy in the darkest of greens. In recent weeks, there has been an exuberant exhibition of flower and catkins, the woodland floor now carpeted in discarded soft tassles and branches boasting the burgeoning spiky explosions of future treasures. Come October, they will be showering the landscape with their glossy nuts and raining down leaves of bright fire in an autumn extravaganza. Show offs!

In contrast, the dark hollies stand silent and steadfast, so constant in their waxy deep hues . . . and yet, look closely and there is a hint of the flamboyant flourish to come.

In all this sensory beauty, it is the quality of light that draws me back time and time again. I love the startling contrast between light and shadow as the sun climbs from behind the mountain, its creeping rays fragmented and scattered through the leafy canopy.

August is a time of frenzy here; it’s the crazy holiday month that sees an influx of visitors (more this year than ever, it seems) and a soaring level of busyness and bustle about the place. We know from previous experience that the best thing for us is to hunker down and aestivate at home, brazening it out until September, when the veil of peace and serenity enfolds Asturias once again. That said, we do have to venture out occasionally for supplies and so this week, as we often do, we decided to sweeten the pill of a supermarket trip with a walk in a lovely spot first. We headed to Castropol at the very western edge of Asturias, then turned south and climbed the ear-popping, snow-poled road to La Garganta (900 metres) before spilling down the other side ~ out of the coastal mist and into a wall of warmth ~ to Santa Eulalia de Oscos and the Ruta de la Cascada de Seimeira. This is a pleasant walk to a pretty waterfall, and every time we have done it before, we have had the place to ourselves. Not this time! The car park had overflowed big time down the lane and there were crowds of visitors, rucksacks at the ready, heading off along the path. Now, please don’t get me wrong with this. I do not believe we deserve special treatment when it comes to this sort of thing and it is only natural that many people want to enjoy the beauty of such a place ~ it’s there to be shared, after all. However, we are not herd followers or crowd seekers and the idea of trooping along in a human crocodile, so close that masks were obligatory (in that heat?), just didn’t appeal. Time for a sharp exit; incidentally, if we ever end up doing Plan A, I may have to go and lie down in a darkened room for a while! 🙂

We drove a short way to a deserted woodland picnic site and, consulting the map over a flask of coffee, decided to walk from there along the Ruta del Forcón de los Ríos whose name suggested at some point we would come to a watersmeet.

The walk started along quiet lanes in open country; there is such character and charm to this western margin of Asturias, more rolling hills than soaring mountains, arable farming and stone houses standing square and solid under slate roofs.

Slate is very much a feature of the landscape and I am always fascinated by the great ranks of upright slabs, like rows of crooked teeth, which serve as fences in the region.

The route soon left the lane and picked up a trail down through mixed woodland and across the río Barcia; nowhere near as spectacular as the waterfall we had intended to visit but we would see this little river again later on.

We continued along the path to Vega del Carro where we passed the tiny chapel of Nuestra Señora del Carmen tucked away in a woodland glade. I have a soft spot for humble buildings like this, not from any shared religious conviction but because as someone who finds her ‘peace’ sitting under a tree, I greatly admire the hands, hearts and minds who built their chapel in the shade of a protective yew, using the stone beneath their feet and wood from the forest. For me, there is an exquisite beauty and sense of meaning and purpose in such simplicity, far greater than anything contained in the carvernous glories of great cathedrals.

It was turning into a hot day and I was glad of the shade as we walked through great stretches of woodland where mighty oaks stood sentinel over smaller trees.

There was a beautiful mix of tree varieties and I was particularly charmed by a pretty pairing of dainty birch and showy rowan, those bright berries so typical of high summer.

It never fails to amaze me how quickly we can walk into wilderness in Asturias; I don’t know why it comes as a surprise, because it’s exactly what we do from home but even so, it’s always a wonderful thing. Suddenly, we were in a gorge where craggy outcrops rose above the thick woodland and the air was clotted with the scent of sun-warmed heather.

We had been able to hear the river far below us for some time before the path started to descend steeply towards the valley floor. It was unbelievably slippery, the dead vegetation having made a silky carpet of straw which felt like ice beneath my feet. Still, it makes a change from mud and wet rocks, I suppose!

As the path led into the shade of trees once again, we crossed a wooden bridge and arrived at the confluence of the río Villanueva and río Barcia, their cool, clear waters meeting in a sparkling song across the stones.

What a beautiful, peaceful spot it was, not a sound to be heard apart from the bustle of the water and bursts of birdsong. We sat and watched the lazy flapping of butterflies and rapid darting of damselflies, the latter like splinters of metallic rainbows caught in the sunlight.

It was incredible to think that just a short distance away as the crow flies, crowds of people were filing up to the Seimeira waterfall. Over the entire length of our walk ~ eight kilometres (five miles) ~ we only saw one other human being, an elderly lady tending a very beautiful garden. Her friendly greeting reminded me how language becomes smudged and blurred on these Asturian fringes so that buenos días slides into bos días and then bom dia in a linguistic echo that ripples across Galicia and down into Portugal.

The path beckoned us on but, tempting as it was, we still had the supermarket to face, so decided to go no further. We will definitely return, perhaps when summer starts to spill into autumn and the colour and light shift across the landscape once again. In the meantime, I shall continue with my little morning meanderings in the woodlands closer to home! 🙂

Loving Lammas

The true harvest of my life is intangible – a little stardust caught, a portion of the rainbow I have clutched.

Henry David Thoreau

At the halfway point between the summer solstice and autumn equinox, the beginning of August marks the festival of Lammas, which takes its name from the Saxon hlaf – mas or ‘loaf mass.’ Although at one level it is a Christian festival celebrated in some northern hemisphere countries, it is based on much older origins and coincides with the ancient Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh. It is a celebration of the first fruits of harvest and, in particular, the first cut of grain. Traditionally, harvest thanksgiving tends to fall later in the year, I suppose because then all harvests have been gathered ~ fruits from the orchard, roots from the earth, nuts and berries from the hedgerows, honey from the hives ~ but I believe it is very important to acknowledge the beginning of this season, too, as people have since ancient times. It’s the celebration and overwhelming relief that after so much growth and effort, nature has provided: there will be food on the table.

In France, we lived in an area of mixed farming where our home was surrounded by apple orchards and fields of maize, sunflowers and wheat. Coming from a land where hay and wool were the biggest harvests, it was fascinating to watch the seasonal changes in the wheat fields, from the first tentative green blades emerging from the dark soil in late winter or early spring to the standing corn, ripened ears popping and crackling in the summer heat. The rumble of combines left us in no doubt that the grain harvest had begun.

To celebrate the season, I learned how to make simple corn dollies and plaited a bridal horseshoe to give to Sarah on her wedding day, a seasonal gift from mother to daughter to mark such a joyful milestone in her life. It seemed very fitting for a country bride who gathered most of her bouquet from a hedgerow!

Here in Asturias, we are back to grass and the farmers, for the most part, are ganaderos who raise cows, not grain. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge the importance of the grain harvest ~ in fact, we do it several times a week. Baking our own bread is a way of life for us and involves a little co-operative teamwork. I take responsibility for our sourdough starter which lives in a Kilner jar in the fridge and is fondly known as Yeasty Beastie. On baking days, I love my morning ritual of opening the lid and breathing in that sharp, beery scent of natural yeasts at work before gently stirring in a warm paste of water and rye flour to ‘feed’ it. Several hours later, after it has sat at room temperature and developed a lively covering of new bubbles, Roger uses some of it to make a dough.

There is something very special about the yeasty, floury smell in the kitchen and the silent miracle of the dough rising beneath a clean tea towel, the wonderful appetising scent of the bread as it bakes and the thrill of that first taste, straight from the oven and almost too hot to touch. It’s like a special little Lammas every time.

We are blessed to enjoy a good harvest of fruit and vegetables from our garden all the year round thanks to the mild climate, but this time of year signals the greatest productivity with a shift from enough to abundance. Now we can pick and eat almost a whole day’s meals from the garden ~ peaches, strawberries and walnuts for breakfast, soups or salads for lunch, hearty vegetable bakes or curries or stir fries for dinner. There is so much to choose from!

This week has also seen a flurry of preserving activity, as we have been processing gluts of fresh produce to enjoy in leaner times; we are so very lucky to have the technology and ingredients that allow us to do this. We would be lost without our freezer but space now is at a premium so there is an immense juggling game in progress as we try to use up foods such as roast squash and homemade stock to make room for new things. We are enjoying possibly the best harvest of French beans ever, but despite staggering the planting, the rows are all fruiting at once and we are literally picking kilos at a time.

I’ve been brewing up vats of chutney, with a sort of ‘half the garden’ recipe going on ~ beans, courgettes, onions, peaches, garlic, chillies, coriander seed, bay and anything else that comes to hand ~ all cooked down to a rich, spicy preserve; I’ve also pickled more cucumbers and nasturtium seeds.

A trugload of courgettes and cabbages suggested it was time at long last to have a go at lacto-fermenting some vegetables, something I know is a very beneficial thing to do but keep wriggling out of. Part of the problem, I think, is that I’ve never been a fan of sauerkraut but then I’ve never tried a homemade version; Roger, on the other hand, loves it so there really is no excuse. Well, in for a penny and all that . . . I decided at the same time to have a go at fermenting a jar of courgettes, too. Like the chutney, I used flavourings I could pick ~ garlic, chillies, coriander and bay ~ and the two jars sat bubbling away happily in the corner of the kitchen for several days. I can’t say they looked too appetising but appearances aren’t everything, although I did need to muster some courage to taste the results . . . Opinion? Well, I have to admit to being nicely surprised; it’s definitely the first time I’ve enjoyed sauerkraut (it’s really good!) and the courgettes are like a crunchy, tasty pickle. Think I might try some cucumbers next . . .

Something I have no problem eating is peaches and this week has seen many hours spent in picking and processing these most luxurious of fruits. They ripen so quickly that we can’t afford to ignore them, they demand instant (and what feels like constant) attention if they aren’t to fall off the trees and be wasted; Roger has spent much of his time up a ladder filling the trug and then processing each batch before returning to pick the next one. Jams and chutneys, bottling and freezing . . . there has been a busy peach-centred buzz about the kitchen in recent days.

Spending hours each day peeling, stoning and slicing kilos of peaches might not sound too appealing but for me, there is something very sensuous about the whole thing: the soft velvet nap and sunset blush of their skins, the pink starburst of the wrinkled stone hidden inside, the soft melting flesh, the juice running down my arms . . . it’s all a complete connection with the gift of food, a joyful celebration of this wonderful fruit. We have watched the story of this harvest unfold: nervous days in February where the delicate blossoms run the gauntlet with uncertain weather yet sunny days bring the busy and essential attention of pollinators; the velvety nubs of tiny developing fruit, swelling amongst the leaves; branches drooping under the weight of ripening fruits, tantalisingly close to being ready to eat. Arriving at that long-awaited moment of picking the first sun-warmed fruit, feeling its weight in our hand and breathing in its sweet fragrance, knowing there is a harvest to be had, is surely the perfect essence of Lammas.

Of course, it’s not all about gluts and an almost overwhelming abundance; after all, a couple of years ago, our entire peach harvest ran to a single fruit. I think it’s every bit as important to do honour to the tiniest crops, too. We’re enjoying tasty little pickings of cape gooseberries from a self-set plant that suddenly appeared from nowhere last year and I savoured every second of the three ~ yep, three ~ unexpected autumn raspberries. Earlier in the year, we planted strawberries in a trough Roger had made from scrap timber; we didn’t really expect much in this first season, but those little plants have surprised us with a slow and steady stream of delicious fruits. They tend to ripen a few at a time, usually no more than three or four in a week and often just one at a time, but they are truly wonderful. Is there a lovelier thing than sharing a strawberry? 🙂

Precious harvests like this call for special treatment; we seldom eat puddings of any kind but everyone needs a little indulgence now and then!

I’ve read two very contrasting reports in the British press this week which I felt were both very pertinent to my reflections on Lammas and harvest in general. The first reported that the amount of food waste in the UK, which dropped significantly during lockdown, is now rising rapidly once more towards its previous (and, in my opinion, appalling) level. I wish that someone could explain it to me: how did we arrive at this place in society, where food has become such an unvalued, disrespected, throw-away commodity? Why is it apparently ‘alright’ to throw away millions of tonnes of food every year, 70% of which is food that could have been eaten (according to latest WRAP research) ? It makes me very, very sad. 😦 On a more positive note, the second report, written by a doctor, suggested that an answer to tackling the problem of obesity could well lie in gardening, and in particular, in developing community gardens where people of all ages can come together to grow vegetables and fruit to eat. What a wonderfully positive and hopeful idea that is.

I think that much of it comes down to making changes in habits and that’s not always an easy thing to address: change might be the only constant in life, but it’s not always a comfortable thing. Take, for instance, my current tea situation. Cancellation of our UK trips has meant I am running dangerously low on the good quality, loose-leaf Assam tea I love; along with a pile of secondhand books, topping up my tea supply is top of the shopping list and I love to take my (well-travelled!) reusable brown bags back to the Broad Bean deli in Ludlow for refills. I am now having to limit myself to one mug a day to eke out my remaining tea for as long as possible, but really, I think this is a situation which is doing me a lot of good because I am having to look for viable alternatives. (I should say that of course, I could buy black tea here but it tends to come in boxes of individually wrapped teabags and I’m not happy buying into that kind of packaging nightmare.)

I still don’t love green tea ~ which I can buy here loose in paper bags ~ but I’m persevering with it and find that mixed with mint, it’s reasonably palatable; I’ve been drying bunches of mint to use through the winter months. I’m getting along much better with fresh herbal teas from the garden, especially a blend of lemon balm, lavender and thyme and I know that from a health and environmental perspective, it is far better to wander outside and pick my tea rather than buy something that has been processed, packaged and carted around the world. It’s another little ritual I’ve come to love.

I’ve also replaced one of my daily cuppas with a smoothie, something that presented itself as an answer to what you do when life deals you cucumbers. I’m not the world’s greatest smoothie fan as I tend to prefer eating my fruit and veg whole but one of the biggest issues I’ve always had is that so many recipes call for imported or expensive (or both) ingredients like bananas, avocados, blueberries, pineapples, lime, coconut water, almond butter and a whole load of other things I’ve never even heard of. Quite simply, if I can’t pick it from the garden, I’m not doing it.

So . . . chard, romaine lettuce, celery, cucumbers, mint and coriander from the patch, plus a piece of ginger and a squeeze of lemon juice (which are both bought foods but ones we always have to hand anyway). Given we have a basic food processor rather than a high speed blender, the results are always a ‘less-than-smoothie’ but I’m enjoying them and they exude a great air of healthy living. At this rate, I might never go back to tea . . .

Food is not the only harvest I am grateful for. In the recent hot, dry spell of weather we have needed to water the vegetable patches as well as the tunnel, and the constant and reliable supply of sweet, chemical-free water from a mountain spring is something we never take for granted. Our woodland provides us with all the fuel we need for warmth and cooking in the winter months and now is the time we start moving the seasoned logs into the woodstore, stacked and ready for the woodstove in autumn.

We have cut stout hazel props to support heavy branches on several peach and fig trees, used finer branches as supports for pepper, aubergine and cucumber plants in the tunnel and twiggier sticks in the pea rows; once they become too brittle to use again, we chop them and cook over them on the barbecue. Everything is valued, nothing is wasted.

I am thankful, too, for the wide variety of plantstuffs I can collect and use as herbal remedies, in toiletries and for natural dyeing.

I am very excited to see my new soapwort plant flowering, how have I never had such a pretty thing in the garden before? Grown from a slip of root given as a gift, this holds the future promise of household soap and I can’t wait to start using it.

The garden has been alive with clouds of butterflies this week, including some new additions like the huge and beautiful green-washed fritillary, which refuses to stay still long enough for a photo! In fact, there are insects everywhere, and I am reminded of our dependence on them for so much food, the importance of connection once again.

In many ways, our harvest has barely begun; in the tunnel, vegetable patches, orchard, nuttery, fields and woodland there are still so many treasures to come, so much of nature’s bounty to enjoy. In the meantime, it’s back to the kitchen . . ! 🙂

Spotlight on Ponga #2

Having recovered from our Grand Adventure on the Tiatordos walk, we decided the only thing for it was to go back to Ponga for more, opting to start with the somewhat gentler Ruta de Arcenorio. For us, this turned out to be weirdly civilised: it was signposted from several kilometres away, started from a large and organised car park (completely free of charge as they all are here) and the entire trail was a wide, gravelled forestry track. Now that might sound a bit tame following some of our recent jaunts but sometimes it’s good to do things the easy way for a change!

The walk goes through the Bosque de Peloño which is a Partial Nature Reserve and at the start, it’s possible to see a conservation project in action where the landscape is being regenerated to help protect the endangered orugallo or Cantabrian capercaillie. From there, the path winds through several meadows full of wild flowers and scattered stone buildings; those curved terracotta roof tiles are a feature of eastern Asturias and were traditionally shaped by folding clay around a thigh.

A short distance further and we entered the forest. Some 37% of Ponga is covered in mature native woodland and the extensive Bosque de Peloño is a stunning example which is of huge ecological importance. It’s a good job the path was kind under foot because I spent the next few hours with my eyes lifted to the canopy, revelling in the astonishing variety and proliferation of species.

Oak, ash, birch, cherry, elder, alder, rowan, maple, holly, willow, hazel, walnut and more in a rich carnival of growth and verdancy . . . but the undisputed king of this greenwood was the beech. There were thousands upon thousands of them, many growing ramrod straight from the steep mountainside to seemingly impossible heights, others more sprawling, their thick knotted trunks and contorted branches plush with dark mosses and dripping silvery lichen.

Together with birch, beech is my absolute favourite tree, so lovely in all seasons. I could imagine what a joyful walk this must be in spring when the tightly-rolled cigar buds unfurl into silken bursts of the freshest green or in the fire of autumn through burnished coppery leaf fall and spiky mast crunching beneath my boots. Now the trees were in their full summer glory of green, branches swept skywards so that even in the most crowded of places, the fretted canopy was rippled and stippled with puddles of sunlight. They offered us other visual delights, too.

It felt a complete privilege to be walking through such a huge and vibrant broadleaf forest, especially considering we were over 1200 metres above sea level ~ somewhere roughly between the summits of Snowdon and Ben Nevis. What a difference latitude makes to the botanical world! Actually, deep in the trees it was easy to forget exactly where we were until spaces opened out and the mountains reasserted themselves in the view.

Magnificent though the beech trees were, they weren’t to have the last word in all things arboreal. Several kilometres into our walk, we peeled off the track to follow a path down to the Roblón de Bustiellos and, discovering a wealth of convenient beech logs to sit on in the clearing, we decided this was the perfect spot for our picnic lunch. The Roblón de Bustiellos is a single sessile oak tree growing in the middle of a beech grove, towering high above its companions and commanding complete attention. At its base, the girth measures eight metres in circumference and it stands 27 metres high ~ that’s sixteen of me! There was no chance of capturing the entire tree in a photo.

There is something very precious and humbling about spending time in the presence of a tree like this, so ancient and venerable. What stories it could tell!

Leaving the clearing somewhat reluctantly, we climbed back to the path and continued on our way. Although much of our walk was through trees, in places the landscape opened out to sweeping meadows full of contented cows. Well, how could they not be with a view like that to enjoy?

The walk in its entirety was 24 kilometres long but we opted to shorten it to sixteen as we were staying in Ponga that night and planning a more arduous hike the following day somewhere in the mountains rising out of that blue haze. Ah, but that’s another story and another walk . . .

. . . and one that starts back in the village of Taranes, the Ruta Valle de Muro. Taranes is a pretty village boasting a wealth of ancient houses and horreos, perched precipitously on a mountainside and completely surrounded by forest. It was the ideal place for an overnight stop which allowed us to set off on our walk reasonably early in the morning (as an aside, one of the cultural differences we’ve never quite got the hang of is the late, late breakfasts in Spain!).

It was a beautiful morning and, given how quickly the cloud cover was dissolving and the fact that we weren’t expecting to be grubbing about in undergrowth, we decided it was definitely a day for shorts.

Knowing that this was going to be a steep one, I also opted to take my stick which in the end turned out to be the wrong decision. We had expected the concrete track to peter out pretty quickly into an uneven rocky path but unbelievably, the concrete continued for miles and miles and miles. The amount of time, effort and money it must have taken to build, as well as the sheer logistics, beggar belief. Still, it did make things a bit easier for us underfoot but left me encumbered with a redundant stick!

Now, we live up a very steep concrete track but honestly, this one made ours look like child’s play. I won’t go quite as far as calling it a vertical ascent but the truth is, it felt that way as we wound round tight hairpins, climbing ever upwards. I was very glad of the shade beneath the trees at this point as the temperature was climbing much faster than I was. Note I’d already stopped (any excuse for a breather) to tie my hair up off the back of my neck. Phew, this was going to be a warm one.

Finally, after what seemed like an interminable climb, the path levelled out and the landscape opened dramatically into wide sweeping vistas of the mountains.

Although much of our path was now in open country, the extent of the forests in this area was clear to see, great swathes of mature woodland blanketing the mountains right to their peaks. It was totally stunning.

It’s written into our family lore that if there is a rock, summit, peak, overhang, crumbling cliff edge or other dubious geological feature to hand, then Roger has to stand on it. This one was a very mild event (even I could have climbed it) but what struck me looking at the photos afterwards are the contrails . . . it seems there’s a lot of the ‘old’ creeping into the so-called new normal.

The benefit of less demanding stretches of walking is that it gives us time to really appreciate our surroundings; on tough hikes, I sometimes find my eyes having to spend too much time focusing on where I’m putting my feet rather than the enjoying the beauty around me. The scenery was completely amazing, but there were smaller things to be admired, too.

One of the (many) problems we’d encountered on our nine-hour trek a couple of weeks earlier was that the two springs marked on the map as places to refill our water bottles had run completely dry; luckily, we had carried plenty of water with us but even so, it meant having to eke out the last drops carefully. No such dramas here, the spring was flowing with blissfully cold, sweet water so it was the perfect spot to top up and grab a quick rest, too.

In fact, we decided this would be a good place to turn round and head back down the mountain, not wanting to do the whole 24 kilometres of the official trail. Given this is a well-marked and popular walk, we only met four other people, all when we were on our way back down. Mind you, there were plenty of others on the path going about their important business.

Time to leave them in peace and turn our faces homeward. What a truly incredible time we have had exploring this most beautiful corner of Asturias. ¡Gracias, Ponga! 🙂

Spotlight on Ponga #1

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.

John Muir

A third of the Asturian landscape has protection status of one kind or another and the province has the most Biosphere Reserves in Spain: seven. I totally understand why well-known areas such as The Picos de Europa National Park and the Somiedo Natural Park are such people magnets, both for locals and visitors as they are completely stunning and special places. However, I’ve always had a soft spot for Ponga Natural Park because it is very beautiful, very wild and very, very quiet and the chance to spend some time there exploring new corners and walking routes as part of our summer ‘staycation’ was one definitely not to be missed.

Covering an area of 255 km2 and rising to a maximum elevation of 2,142 metres, Ponga offers a wealth of fabulous possibilities when it comes to walking. Our first adventure started at the mountain village of Taranes from which we decided to follow the circular route of Foz de la Escalada-Tiatordos; this was in fact something like Plan D that day ~ certainly not what we’d been expecting to do when we left home ~ but at roughly 20k / 12 miles with a climb of 1000-1300m / 3300 – 4300ft it looked like our kind of challenge. We set off up the cobbled path, so typical of many we have walked in Asturias; whether an ancient route between villages, a drovers’ road or medieval pilgrims’ way, the work that went into constructing them in such difficult places never fails to amaze me.

We hadn’t gone very far before I decided to trot back to the car and fetch my stick. I usually prefer to walk without it but when a local council here feels the need to post a warning that you are embarking up a ruta muy peligrosa (very dangerous path) then you can be confident we are talking extremes and for me, that means my trusty walking stick is essential. An old lady sitting on a bench and cracking walnuts with a stone in the shade of a huge ash tree nodded her approval when she saw what I was back at the car for, telling me it would give me ‘great strength.’ Mmm, she had probably already skipped round the entire walk like a spring lamb that morning. I kid you not; the Asturian mayores are something else! So, stick retrieved, we started to climb the path, quickly leaving the village far below.

The path rose steeply up through a spectacular gorge; it was warm work and I was very grateful for the cloud cover as we wound our way forever upwards. Mighty rock formations towered above us, the river splashed and crashed over boulders and down waterfalls, there was an abundance of green at every turn and the wildflowers were breathtaking. What a magical place!

We paused to share a flask of coffee and drink in the natural beauty around us, watched over by a pair of choughs who bounced their rubbery croaks at us from a great height. Continuing to the top of the gorge, the path turned into a vast swathe of broadleaf forest, still constantly climbing but now through a tunnel of green.

Any hopes of the path becoming easier in this stretch were completely dashed as we found we had exchanged slippery cobbles for gullies of mud where trying to find a foothold was almost impossible in places. I have to admit that my progress was also severely hampered by the fact that I was so enchanted by my surroundings, I kept taking my eye off the path.

After much mud-surfing (and a little yoga) we eventually emerged from the trees into a sunlit meadow, so high now that we were above the clouds. My goodness, it was breathtaking!

The wild iris were incredible, growing in carpets of the most gorgeous shade of blue. Surrounded by the sound of bees and birdsong, we decided this was the perfect spot for our picnic lunch; quite honestly, we could have sat there all day.

The next section of our walk was without doubt the easiest, following a well-defined path through meadows, still climbing but at a far gentler pace now. The landscape was alight with the bright yellow of Spanish broom, underplanted with iris and mountain thyme and the air was full of butterflies.

We came to the ruins of an abandoned village, the sort of place that always make me feel slightly wistful. Most probably, it had been a summer lodging for the vaqueros who drove their cattle up to the higher pastures to graze; the cows are still there but all that is left of the humans are their tumbledown buildings and the whisper of a way of life that has long since gone from that place.

Nature, as it does, had filled the vacuum with sprays of delicate wild roses growing out of the ruins.

Onward, and upwards more steeply again as we climbed towards the highest point of our walk. Note that at this point I was still smiling . . . it’s important to remember that later.

At the top of the pass, we decided it was time to sit for a while again and enjoy the views; well, it would have been rude not to ~ they were simply stunning. We exchanged greetings with a Spanish couple who were walking in the opposite direction; they were the only other human beings we saw on the entire walk. When I said Ponga is quiet, I wasn’t joking.

Every map we have seen of this walk since doing it has shown it as an out-and-back, stopping at this point or taking a while longer to climb right to the summit before following the same path back down to the start.

If only we’d had a crystal ball, then that is exactly what we would have chosen to do because even scrambling up that rocky peak and slithering back down the forest mud gullies would have been a stroll in the park compared to what was to come . . .

I should say that up until now, the route had been fairly well marked with occasional wooden fingerposts and regular enough way markers ~ two horizontal paint lines, one white, one yellow, usually daubed on rocks ~ to keep us on the right track. The problem from this point was that those all but disappeared: we literally lost the path and much of our descent over the next few hours became pure guesswork.

We found ourselves following what we hoped was the right path, only to have to backtrack many times. It was impossible to tell whether we were on the right path or some random cow trail; a few faint footprints amongst the hoofmarks in the dust suggested we were right but in truth, it was others who had been forging their own path, too. In places we had to push through undergrowth in the absence of anything even remotely looking like a path; although by this point I was feeling the heat, I was glad I’d opted to wear my super lightweight summer walking trews rather than shorts.

Eventually, we found a waymarker and hoped we’d picked up the right trail again but trying to find the subsequent ones was like following a will-o’-the -wisp. Once again, we had to retrace our steps and try to find some sort of clue. Luckily, we both have a good sense of direction and knew we had to keep bearing left to get back to our starting point; there are so few roads in Ponga that taking the wrong path down could easily mean ending up many, many miles from the car which wasn’t an idea that really appealed. I was starting to feel slightly disconcerted by the vultures wheeling overhead as if they sensed the possibility of dinner!

I have to admit that I was also starting to feel tired and more than a bit fed up, my sense of humour waning rapidly, so I knew it was time to have a word with myself. This is where those core values are so important! What right did I have to be grumbling when I was so privileged to be out having this incredible adventure in such a wild and beautiful place? Time to ditch the Muttley mutterings and start feeling a sense of gratitude, vitality and wonder once again. Come on, keep going . . . and please smile!

Slowly ~ very slowly ~ we wound our way in more or less the right direction, constantly on the lookout for another marker. The scenery was as beautiful as ever but the shadows were growing longer and we still had miles and miles to go.

When we reached a clearly marked (yippee!) path leading down through woodland, we hoped that from then on things would get better but in fact, the worst was yet to come. Eventually emerging from the shady canopy, we found ourselves high up on the flank of a steep-sided mountain; the path across it was the faintest of lines completely overgrown with vegetation which in places, was higher than my head. Underfoot, it was alarmingly uneven with prutruding rocks here and drops into muddy bogs there, criss-crossed with thick fibrous gorse roots and totally hidden under all that green growth. I literally moved along it one step at a time, constantly feeling in front with my stick to get an idea what was coming ~ like punting without the boat. I lost count of the times I stumbled to my left into gorse bushes but it was preferable to stumbling to my right and falling down the mountainside!

Our progress had now dropped to snail’s pace and there was a collective sinking of hearts as several times we reached what had seemed like the end only to find yet another long stretch ahead of us. I’m not sure it helped that we could now see the village of Taranes again; there was still so obviously a long, long way to go.

In Roger, I have the best of walking companions. He is strong, athletic and sure-footed and rarely fazed by anything. He steps in to help me when he knows I’m struggling (at this point he insisted on carrying my rucksack for a while, walking ahead of me and trying to forge some sort of path through the tick-infested undergrowth), otherwise he lets me get on with things without fussing over me. He stays positive and optimistic long after I’ve lost the will to be either. In short, he makes me braver than I really am and there is no way I would have managed this walk without him. I was so glad he was there!

The rest of the walk is something of a blur. I know we scrambled down an impossibly steep gully to a meadow where a herd of horses was grazing and still had two hours of walking to go. We picked up a track which was blisfully grassy and reasonably flat for a while before deteriorating into a steep and slippery stream bed that made for a difficult downhill of several kilometres. By this stage, for the first time since running a half-marathon nearly three years ago, I was so tired that I was literally having to tell my feet what to do. Thankfully, there were still some beautiful distractions to enjoy.

Now at least we were seeing fairly regular markers along the way but none at the numerous junctions we came to so we just had to make an educated guess each time as to which fork was the right one. I could have turned several cartwheels when we finally met the road back up to Taranes (another climb of two kilometres to the car, but hey, who cares?) except that I was just too pooped to even think about it. The entire walk had taken us almost nine hours and has to be one of the most physically demanding I’ve ever done. Of course, the old lady was no longer sitting on the bench by our car which was a shame because I would have loved to have told her how right she’d been about my stick. As we wearily peeled off our mud-encrusted boots and topped up on food and water before the two-hour drive home, the setting sun silvered the mountains in a majestic light and we smiled to think we’d climbed all the way up there. Tired? Exhausted (bitten, scratched and blistered, too)! Happy? Ecstatic! Going back to Ponga? You bet! 🙂

If music be the food of love

The photos in this post come from two recent walks, one in the wild mountains of Ponga Natural Park and the other to the beautiful Cascada del Cioyo.

When we last lived in Wales, our neighbour Alwenna walked the lanes every day in all weathers and, regardless of whether she was striding out purposefully or gently meandering along, we always knew where she was because as she walked, she sang. Not some quiet, self-conscious humming to herself, but a full-blown belting out of tunes at the top of her (very tuneful) voice which never failed to make me smile. It was a wonderful outpouring of happiness and the sheer joy of being alive and it has floated back into my memory this week as I have been rediscovering the delights of playing a recorder.

Now I promise I am not going to become a recorder bore; far from it, I need to put time and effort into practising rather than writing about it. However, I wanted to dedicate a post to it because I think what I’m doing sits so well with my approach to and belief in a simple life. I think it’s vitally important ~ as well as massively rewarding ~ to pursue new interests and learn fresh skills and knowledge throughout life; it’s a positive, optimistic and meaningful thing and in this day and age, when we are all too aware of the necessity of keeping our brains busy, stimulated and healthy then anything that forces us to build new neural pathways is surely a worthwhile activity.

When it comes to taking up new interests or trying different things, these days we are blessed with an almost overwhelming choice but I would like to fly the flag here for the benefits of revisiting an old pastime rather than always feeling the need to jump in at the deep end of something bright and shiny. It’s a well-known fact that in our modern western society, countless attics, sheds and garages heave with the evidence of abandoned hobbies, of kit and equipment bought in the first flush of excitement and quickly dumped as the novelty wears off, or the activity becomes too costly in terms of money, time or effort. One of the great plus points of blowing the dust off an old interest is that you know, to some degree at least, what to expect.

Like many children of my generation, my first foray into the world of making music was being taught the rudiments of recorder playing by school staff generous enough to spend their lunch break with a group of excruciating little squeakers! From there my love of music grew through singing and a (mercifully) short flirtation with the violin before settling on the guitar as my ‘thing.’ I was lucky enough to have a few terms of lessons but I’ve never really developed my skills much beyond a basic level so that is something I’m determined to put right. I have a very beautiful steel-stringed acoustic guitar which I am guilty of neglecting but my plan is to right that wrong . . . by learning to play the recorder again (obviously 🙂 ).

So why not just go straight to my guitar? Well, part of the problem is I have spent so many years using guitar tab and the same old strumming and picking patterns that I have forgotten about the complexities of reading music from a manuscript and all the associated symbolism and language that goes with it; I feel the need to sharpen those skills first by really getting back to basics in the sure knowledge that it will then inspire me to work on improving my guitar playing, too. To that end, I am approaching the recorder with total humility like a complete beginner, paying much attention to things like posture, breath and articulation ~ the sorts of niceties I was happy to ignore as a child. I’m taking time to work carefully through the excellent and very human video tutorials by the hugely talented Sarah Jeffery of Team Recorder and making sure that I practise at least once a day, over and over until I feel I’ve really cracked it.

That said, there are many benefits to being an adult ‘re-learner.’ For a start, I can read notation on a stave without any trouble so I don’t have to learn that from scratch. Of the 27 notes possible on my recorder (according to the fingering chart) I can already play 21 so I am choosing pieces of music which will allow me to add one new note at a time ~ although I sincerely doubt I will ever be able to hit the highest ones. At least I don’t have to drive myself or anyone else mad with constant repeats of ‘Three Blind Mice!’ Having spent several decades listening to and enjoying a wide variety of music and having been lucky enough to experience a wealth of live performances in many styles, I have a secure understanding that music is based on a number of elements and is not just a smattering of notes tooted out at the same speed and volume.

As an adult, I also now have far more discipline to apply myself to getting things right. Something I realise very clearly is that at least 95% of the music I’ve ever made has been by ear; let me hear someone sing or play a phrase and I can copy it fairly accurately but give me a piece to sight read and I’m in deep doo-doo because in all honesty, I’ve been winging it forever. I’m not sure whether I was too fidgety, distracted or idle (possibly all three?) but I have never, ever had a proper understanding of note value, finding far more gratification in the names of things like minim or demisemiquaver than in actually doing the maths in each bar of music. Well, that has to stop and sorting it all out in my head feels like some pretty effective brain gym, that’s for sure! What is wonderful is that there are many online sites where I can download free tunes but also play along with an accompaniment and listen to someone else play, so I can have a crack at it on my own first then check against the correct model. Progress is slow . . . but at least it is progress.

Something I am really enjoying is brushing up on all those wonderful terms that add such important information to a piece of music: accelerando, rallentando, glissando, crescendo, fortissimo . . . rolling off my tongue in those delightfully dramatic Italian words. Being me, I’m having a lot of fun making connections with Spanish so andante obviously shares the same root as andar (to walk) and allegro is sister to one of my favourite Spanish words, alegría (joy).

Meanwhile, back to the actual playing and as I enjoy a wide range of different types and styles of music, I’m having fun dipping in and out of all sorts of bits and pieces: English and Welsh folk, baroque, ragtime, blues, film themes . . . but without doubt, the pieces I’m enjoying the most at the moment are Irish jigs. They are fast and furious and I’m nowhere near up to speed and still croaking out the high notes like a strangled Clanger but there is something just so energetic and vibrant and downright joyful about traditional music that brings people together and makes them want to dance.

I’ve made a start on building a repertoire of Celtic tunes, not just with a lively toe-tapping ceilidh vibe but those more haunting and mournful melodies, too. For me, this is a style of music that is truly evocative of bleak windswept landscapes under open skies, the aching green of woodland glades, the rocky strongholds of eagle-haunted mountain tops or the booming timpani of waves along a wild coastline. Northern Spain has much in common with Brittany and the Celtic lands of the British Isles ~ and not just the fact that it rains a lot! There is a strong sense of shared history (Castro de Coaña, a Celtic settlement a short trip from home, is a fascinating place to visit) and common culture in terms of art work, traditions, folklore and of course, music. Indeed, I am practising a piece of traditional Asturian flute music called ‘Ancestros’ which could quite easily have hailed from any of those other countries, so similar is it in style and sweet, sad melody.

I love the idea of the spirit of landscape and nature being captured and reflected in music. Let’s face it, nature itself bursts with its own wild tunes and I like nothing better than to close my eyes and listen: sitting by the Cascada del Cioyo, my ears feasted on the pulsating rhythm and crashing of white water against rock, the deep moody notes of the plunge pool, the staccato of a wren underpinning the mellifluous legato of blackcap, and the breeze dripping notes like liquid silver through the leaves.

It was all there and I couldn’t hope to better it; not that I want to, but I do love the idea of taking my recorder into the woods and simply playing from the heart for pure pleasure. It might seem a complete contradiction to the disciplined study I’m making myself do, but I think life should be a balance. After all, music has been an oral tradition for most of its existence and sitting under the leafy sunlit canopies surrounded by the buzz of life, I think I should be allowed to dispense with sheet music and metronomes just for a while. I’ve learned how to mute my recorder, too, so I can sit and ‘feel’ what I’m playing without disturbing the peace of all those I share this precious space with.

This idea brings to mind the concept of awen, a very lovely Welsh word (Cornish and Breton, too, I believe) which has no precise English correspondence but roughly translates as ‘flowing inspiration.’ It’s much invoked by those who practise modern Druidry but I believe it can be used by anyone and applied to anyone as a beautiful expression of the spark that ignites the energy and enthusiasm of a creative activity. Although traditionally referring to poetry, I think it’s completely appropriate to recognise that flow of inspiration in many other areas, tangible and abstract ~ music, art, dance, handicrafts of all kinds, cookery, gardening, architecture, scientific enquiry, mathematical reasoning, building relationships . . . in short, any activity that brings head, heart and hands together in a vibrant celebration of creativity.

It’s in everyone, and I think there is something very liberating and exhilarating at being allowed and encouraged to express it; it doesn’t matter if you’re not very good at something (trust me, I am never going to be a talented musician) because that’s not what this is about. How often do we stop ourselves from trying something new or different or wacky because we lack confidence or have doubts or are worried . . . about what? That we’re going to fail or be judged or ridiculed? Well, who cares? In lives that can be so overstuffed with busyness and stress and in what are currently very strange and troubled times, I believe more than ever there’s a need to let our hair down, go for it and above all, have fun. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve ended up in fits of laughter with my recorder over the last week. Regret about chances not taken and things not done must be one of the saddest of all human emotions so, go on ~ blow the cobwebs off that old musical instrument, paintbox, set of tools, tennis racquet or whatever, pick up a pen or a needle or a lump of clay, take a lesson in dancing salsa or metalwork or Japanese or anything that appeals to you. Do it. Smile, laugh, enjoy. What greater celebration of the gift of life can there be? 🙂

E-value-ation

You need to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was.

Irish proverb
(Com)passion flower

If someone were to ask us what we miss most about the UK ~ apart from obvious things like spending more time with loved ones ~ then I think the answer we would both give is a good library. We are avid readers and although obviously there are good libraries locally, our Spanish is not fluent enough to allow us to enjoy books with the same ease we can in English. One of our top priorities on UK road trips is to stock up on several months’ worth of reading material from charity shops, which we look after, enjoy and return to the same shops for resale on the next trip. It works a treat . . . but obviously this year we have come a bit unstuck and with no chance of a trip until October at the earliest, we are having to make do.

Simplicity

In a way, I think it’s easier for me. For starters, I can always pick up a bit of knitting instead so I don’t get through books as quickly as Roger; I’m also more inclined than he is to read books again, many times over in some cases, and I also love non-fiction books so I’m quite happy to work my way through favourite well-thumbed tomes on all sorts of subjects ~ even recipe books. Last year, we were given the generous gift of a Kindle and although being the dinosaur I am, I still prefer a paper book, it has been a really useful tool in extending our reading repertoire. There are thousands of free e-books available to download and I’ve found that it’s worth spending time trawling through the mass of titles in order to unearth some real treasures. When I was researching soap-making, I found several really useful books and now I’m pottering my way through an Open University short course in intermediate Spanish and plodding at (nearly dead) snail’s pace through a Spanish novel. It’s fun to dip into ‘subcategories’ I wouldn’t normally bother with: to that end I’m currently reading a fascinating book about ecology (a topic that has always interested me but which I’ve never really studied properly) and this is precisely how I ended up finding Be Who You Came To Be by Estelle Gillingham. Listed under ‘Self-help and Counselling’ it is most definitely not the kind of book I would usually go for but it certainly gave me a few things to think about.

Nature

Estelle Gillingham is a research chemist turned forensic healer and her book is an intricate weaving of the esoteric, Eastern philosophy, scientific research and quantum physics (and there’s a subject to set the old grey matter jingling, if ever there was one!). If I’m honest, much of the book didn’t resonate greatly with me but I loved the section about ‘values’ and the idea that we should take time to identify our personal core values, rather than those that may have come from our ancestry, upbringing, culture, education, politics, religion or whoever and whatever else may have influenced us during our lives; not that (in my humble opinion) there may be anything inherently wrong with learned values, it’s just that they don’t necessarily tell the whole story of us as individuals and unique beings. In short, it’s finding the values that truly make us us, the ones by which we should be measuring our lives and actions or, as the Irish proverb has it, doing our own growing.

Compassion

The first exercise was to choose a set of fifteen values from a list of almost 420, ranged alphabetically from abundance to zeal, then reduce those to ten and ultimately to five or six. Well, talk about falling at the first hurdle. Fifteen? Try at least forty-five! I found it so difficult to whittle them down that I ended up adopting my own approach of gathering words together in bundles and then reflecting carefully on which one would best serve as a beacon for the lot. So, for instance, in a week that saw us celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary and Sam and Adrienne’s second, along with the seventh birthday of our eldest grandchild Ben, you would expect love, marriage, partnership and family to be pretty high on the list . . . but there goes four of my five or six straight away! For these and the values I had grouped with them, I decided compassion ~ literally ‘suffering with’ ~ was the absolute core.

Compassion

Affection, care, commitment, courtesy, empathy, ethics, fairness, family, fidelity, friendship, kindness, love, loyalty, marriage, nurture, patience, partnership, thoughtfulness, trust.

Compassion

At this point, I’d like to say I never intended for this to become a blog post; I simply opted to use WordPress editor as a useful place to gather my thoughts, especially as the next task was to find pictures to represent my chosen values and, being an incurable photoholic, my media library seemed the obvious place to go. The fact that it morphed into a post that feels quite different for me came as a bit of a surprise and I understand if readers decide it’s not for them. I’m just very grateful that anyone ever takes precious time out of their day to read my ramblings! For those who are brave or curious enough to continue, here is the rest of my list:

Simplicity

Balance, calmness, comfort, contentment, freedom, frugality, happiness, honesty, humility, integrity, practicality, pragmatism, realism, relaxation, rest, tranquility.

Simplicity

Gratitude

Appreciation, celebration, cheerfulness, generosity, giving, joy, optimism, peace, thankfulness, warmth.

Gratitude

Nature

Conservation, diversity, environmentalism, outdoors, respect, silence, solitude, stillness.

Nature

Wonder

Adventure, amazement, attentiveness, awareness, awe, curiosity, delight, discovery, excitement, exploration, fascination, inquisitiveness, learning, reflection, understanding.

Wonder

Creativity

Adaptability, challenge, communication, enjoyment, expressiveness, flexibility, imagination, inspiration, language, resourcefulness, teaching.

Creativity

Well, not quite the rest because at this point I ran out of road having stretched to six core values but I still had another group that I really didn’t want to abandon. What to do? In the end, I decided I would just have to break the ‘rules’ and include it anyway as a seventh value; after all, there’s a good reason that I haven’t listed obedience anywhere! 🙂

Vitality

Activity, agility, change, enthusiasm, fitness, fun, growth, health, liveliness, playfulness, resilience, spontaneity, surprise.

Vitality

Obviously, there is a lot of potential cross-over here: nature looks a bit on the thin side but I could add much of what’s in the other lists to that section, too. In fact, it would be very easy to get carried away with words flying left, right and centre. I did add a few ideas of my own such as nurture, celebration and language, all of which are important aspects of my life, but otherwise I tried to sort the values into the category which I felt had the overall ‘best fit.’

So what exactly is the point of all this? There are people who have hailed Be Who You Came To Be as incredibly life-changing and others who dismiss it as a load of New Age woo woo; I suppose I fall somewhere between, but the idea of reflecting on my core values and looking at how well I apply them to my everyday life is certainly something I find to be an engaging activity. For example, I’m still feeling really thrilled with my recent indigo dyeing escapade and in fact, I can see all seven core values running through the natural dyeing activities I’ve been messing with so far. Some might seem more obvious than others but elements of them all are most definitely there. This had me thinking that maybe what I should be focusing on are those things I don’t enjoy quite so much in life . . .

Wonder

. . . so how, for example, could I bring more creativity or vitality to a supermarket trip? It’s certainly one to ponder! One of my favourite yoga teachers recommends adopting a yogi squat posture in a shopping queue, partly because it’s so much kinder on the back and legs than standing for any length of time or leaning idly on a trolley, but also because in allowing ourselves to be ‘vulnerable’ to other people’s reactions ~ surprise, bewilderment, amusement, disapproval, frowns, smiles, comments or whatever ~ we become stronger and more comfortable in our own skins and, ultimately, truer to our real selves. Perhaps a bit of yoga at the checkout then? Or maybe I should start humming ‘Hot Stuff’ and see if I can get a bit of a Full Monty thing going? 🙂 I certainly think there’s an argument for more playfulness in the world. When I was teaching, I stuck a sign that read ‘Life must be lived as play’ on my classroom door as a gentle reminder to everyone who entered, whether child or adult, that learning should be fun. It wasn’t something I’d invented, but was written by the philospher Plato in Ancient Greece: how long it takes us to see the truth in ancient wisdom!

Vitality

If nothing else, this happy little exercise seems to have left me with an enormous boost of energy and has prodded me into all sorts of unexpected busyness over the last couple of weeks. I’ve dug out my sewing machine and made a summer nightie from a remnant of cotton fabric, the first dressmaking I’ve done in over seven years. I winged it a bit without using a pattern and in the process, I learnt the very clever ‘hotdog’ technique for lining a bodice . . . which had the ridiculous knock-on effect of me humming Led Zeppelin’s ‘Hot Dog’ for several days afterwards.

Creativity

If you’re not familiar with the song, it’s the mosy un-Zepplike track imaginable (sort of rock meets country and western meets ragtime) which for years has raised a collective groan from Roger and our sprogs because it brings me out in an uncontrollable frenzy of embarrassing dance moves every time I hear it. Well, having read recently about research that has shown how even one minute a day of shaking your tail feathers to music that makes you smile can increase happiness and productivity, I’m having some very happy ‘Hot Dog’ moments and it can only be a matter of time before I break out the B52’s ‘Love Shack.’ 🙂 🙂 🙂

Gratitude

I’m having a short break from running but I’ve taken to striding out on walks in all weathers, particularly into the woods, to really observe, study and learn more about the flora and fauna around me. I’ve started tackling the chaos that is our undereaves storage, trying to bring a sense of order to what has become an easy ‘dumping’ ground. I’ve ordered seeds for indigo, woad, dyer’s chamomile, weld and madder so that I can create a dyer’s border in the garden, something I’ve been threatening to do for almost ten years now. I’ve bought a beautiful yellow ‘eco’ descant recorder (made from plant-based materials) with the intention of going right back to basics and rediscovering my love of making music. I’m not claiming to have ‘found myself’ ~ no thanks, that would be far too scary! ~ but I’m having a lot of fun . . . and that is something I truly value in my life. 🙂

Practising for the supermarket . . .

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! 🙂

Rainy days

Rain is grace; rain is the sky descending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.

John Updike

Rain. Having spent most of my life living on the western side of the British Isles, I’m no stranger to it; after spending three years living in the parched dust of the eastern Mediterranean, I vowed never to moan about it again. Water is life and rain is the lifeblood of the garden, so essential if we are to enjoy a bountiful harvest of food and flowers. There is nothing abnormal about a good dollop of rain here at this time of year; after all, this part of the world is called ‘Green Spain’ for a reason. Combined with gentle warmth and high light levels, it creates what must be just about the perfect growing climate. In times of drought, we can irrigate the garden from a mountain spring but even that soft, unadulterated water is never quite the same as a decent downpour from the sky.

It’s interesting how the experience of rain here is different to what I grew up with. For starters, although we can have seriously heavy storms, it is very unusual to have prolonged spells of rain and it’s a rare day that we can’t spend at least some time outdoors. The sky is different, too; no low, oppressive, dark grey gloom but rather cloud the pale grey of a pigeon’s breast that enfolds the valley or white cloud that weaves around the mountains and through the forests like strands of soft fleece.

This brings a unique and haunting atmosphere to the valley, something beautifully, mystically Tolkienesque. The garden shimmers with a million scintillating diamond drops.

Perhaps the greatest thing, though, is the warmth; no cold dousings these, but something soft and benign – and when the cloud clears and the sun shines, the valley and garden steam like a rainforest.

Oh my goodness, how stuff grows! There is such energy in the garden, such a burgeoning, flourishing, skyrocketing exuberance of growth, it is quite breathtaking. Plants seem to double in size overnight.

Courgettes, their leaves like huge elephants’ ears, jostle one another for elbow room; onions march in closed ranks, brassicas open their arms skywards, beans climb and wind widdershins round their poles, ever upwards.

Young apple trees groan under the weight of their swelling fruit.

The peas are monstrous, pushing and shoving in every direction, their pods as long as my hands.

The garden balloons in jungled layers; lettuce under marigolds under dill under climbing beans; dwarf beans under calabrese under peas; nasturtiums under and over everything!

I have lost control. There are places I can no longer venture, spaces filled by swathes of flowers I did not plant. Secretly, I am in my element!

Like a secret garden, there have been little surprises hidden away just waiting to be discovered. Tucked away deeply in a dark, leafy cave, the curiously fractal head of a romenesco broccoli.

Scrambling through the floral chaos of the terraces, the first whisper of another squash harvest.

In the murky depths of the rain-filled water trough pond, a squadron of tiny newts.

Nestling beneath the hazel hedge, the first flowers on Annie’s hydrangea.

Emerging from behind the scarlet wall of poppies, a self-set morning glory. What treasure!

Now how on earth did I miss these? How can we possibly have lived here for three years and not realised this little stunner was here? I think it’s angel’s trumpet (brugmansia) rather than the more sinister devil’s trumpet (datura); I know both are highly toxic but what an amazingly exotic beauty to ‘find’. What else could we have missed, I wonder?

Of course, it goes without saying that the kiwi relishes such weather and is making its usual takeover bid, the barn quietly disappearing under those thuggish twining tendrils despite Roger’s best efforts to exert some level of control.

There are benefits, though: the last delicate flowers are exciting the bees, the first furry fruits have set and I’m hoping the damp shade beneath that dense green canopy is exactly what’s needed for the magic to begin in our inoculated mushroom logs.

The rain has contributed greatly to the ongoing green manure story, too. It has accelerated the breaking down of the first cut of buckwheat, on a terrace now ready for planting with broccoli.

New sowings in different places have germinated in three days, including yellow trefoil with its sea-green leaves shooting up between the rows of chard, beetroot, spring onions, chicory, radicchio and winter brassica seed drills. Bare earth is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Can there be a more beautiful plant after rain than lady’s mantle? It’s a plant I love with its unfussy habits and froth of yellow foamy flowers but those scalloped leaves holding raindrops like pearls in an oyster shell are exquisite. I am truly thrilled with this little plant because it came into the garden as a gift, one half of a plant swap that makes it very special to me.

I love to share things in this way; I’m currently collecting many different types of flower seeds to give away and help spread the gardening love. It’s amazing how the smallest slip of root or pinch of seeds can become something tremendous, a living reminder of the generosity, shared passion for gardening and love of other people. What a delight to wander through the garden and be greeted by these honoured guests! How incredible to have squashes from Finland stretching out beneath Jerusalem artichokes from Camarthenshire; what joy to see the nodding flowers of comfrey from friends over the mountain, the zingy lime foliage and brilliant magenta flowers of a geranium (pelargonium) from a close neighbour’s cutting.

Some years ago, during one of our regular – and very alliterative! – seed swap sessions, Sarah gave me some white sage seeds which I finally got round to planting earlier this year. Germination is notoriously sketchy so I was thrilled to watch one little seedling grow rapidly into a healthy, vigorous plant which I’ve planted out in the garden this week. It’s an interesting specimen, hailing from the south-western United States and much valued by the native peoples for its medicinal qualities and use in ritual smudging ceremonies; it should be happy in our mild climate but I’m not so sure about the rain and humidity . . . we will see.

In the far corner of the vegetable patch, below the artichoke hedge, is a stand of very special sunflowers. The seeds were collected by Ben, William and Evan and given to me as a birthday gift which made me very happy – I am never going to have sunflowers in the garden for my December birthday, but how wonderful to have this promise of sunshine in a brown paper packet! The plants are almost as tall as me now and have raised their heads high above the other vegetables so we can see them from the sun terrace. The flowers are coming. I can hardly wait!

If only we could unzip the roof of the polytunnel and let the rain soak the earth in there, too!

No such luck, here we have no choice but to haul buckets and cans to keep everything happy but it’s worth the effort: I think we might be on for the best ever crop of peppers this year.

Aubergines usually frustrate me at the seedling stage with their we-want-to-die attitude but this year they went into the ground strong and lusty and full of promise. Ha ha, there’s always something willing to rain on our parade, it seems: enter flea beetles in their droves and doggedly persistent. We have tried all we can think of to send them packing but back they come for more, constantly taking the newest leaves from the centre of the plants. I’m trying to remain optimistic; there are twenty plants in there and they have a good show of flowers so fingers crossed, at least some will prevail.

Meanwhile, there is another regular visitor to be found lurking amongst their leaves; mmm, just hope it isn’t tucking in, too.

The moisture-laden air brings an ethereal quality to the early morning that is too lovely to miss. Dawn might see the valley totally engulfed in white cloud but as the sun climbs above the mountain, this dissipates to reveal the tantalising promise of a beautiful day. Still pyjama-clad, I brew a large mug of tea, grab a blanket (for comfort rather than warmth) and head out to breathe in that sweet freshness for a few moments.

The birdsong of springtime has not yet diminished and the music rises in a melodious crescendo, reverberating across the valley like a sky-roofed cathedral. The garden is already busy with their activity: a blackbird bathes in the little pond; feisty robins vie for the best worm-hunting spot; a song thrush hammers snails against a terrace stone; shy dunnocks scuttle timidly between the plants; a yellow serin passes through, all flap and twitter like a clockwork toy; bullfinches and goldfinches crash through the peace in a blaze of colour and noise. A clutch of young blue tits, scruffy in their juvenile foliage, pick aphids from the peach tree leaves, their garrulous squeaks and comical acrobatics a complete contrast to the pair of tiny warblers that share the plunder. The garden fizzes with bumble bees about their business, too; how fascinating that they focus their initial attention on the red poppies as if they know full well how transient and fleeting those flowers are. Other beauties can wait until later!

So the wet weather has passed through and rainy days have given way to something drier, sunnier, hotter . . . not the searing heat being experienced in other parts, thankfully, but true summer nonetheless.

In the evening, I sit on the sun terrace, stitching a few more squares of my blanket together and drink in the vibrant green lushness of garden and landscape the rain has left behind.

In the warmth, the scent of freesias is divine; how I wish I could stitch a bit of that fragrance in, too!

The rain was wonderful but it’s delightful now to turn my face to the sun once again . . . and my silent little companion on the terrace feels just the same way, I think! 🙂

Climate change

The sun is shining. The air is soft and warm, sweetly scented with jasmine and the first roses, heavily laden with the industry of bees. Swallows are printing rapid arrowheads against the sky and the cuckoo is chiming his two clear notes across the valley. The world is buzzing with colour and life and new growth. I am happy.

It is almost three years now since we moved to Asturias and, as passionate gardeners, adjusting to a new climate has been one of our most important journeys of discovery; after all, a large proportion of our food depends on it! The climate here suits us both so well: it’s much milder than the UK but without the searing summer heat or penetrating winter cold of other parts of Spain; winter frosts roll up the valley, often after dawn, but rarely reach the garden; there is enough regular rainfall to keep everything green and lush, but prolonged periods of wet weather or heavy grey skies are a rarity; winter storms can wreak havoc but they are few and far between and – despite living on the side of a mountain near the coast – windy days are unusual.

In short, it’s about as perfect as it can be, especially from a gardening perspective. Naturally, it’s not all rosy- tomatoes collapse with blight, Brussels sprouts are a non-starter, potatoes are still banned – but we can still grow much that is familiar as well as many plants that wouldn’t have stood a chance in our Shropshire and Welsh gardens.

For our first couple of years here, the house renovation and creation of a productive vegetable garden were key priorities which saw flowers very much taking a back seat. It was so wonderful last year to finally start raising new plants from seed, splitting established plants to spread around and popping in little treasures I had been given. Now spring is flaunting herself around the garden in higgeldy-piggeldy rainbow riots. Lovely!

Clematis is a plant we hardly ever see in other gardens here which is strange as they grow so well; in fact; I planted several new tiny ones last year on the strength of the two we had already established. Montana ‘Elizabeth’ is a pale beauty, currently draping herself nonchalantly along the fence and sporting more blooms than seems physically possible.

I have never, ever grown tulips like the ones we have this year; they have been flowering for weeks and their vibrant, zingy colours make me want to skip with joy every time I see them. It doesn’t matter that the large-cupped pink ‘Don Quichotte’ and white ‘Wilhof’ have shed their petals as ‘Purple Flag’, ‘Holland Beauty’ and ‘Queen of the Night’ (I think!) have waltzed on to centre stage like stately duchesses, decorously draped in gowns of silk, satin and taffeta against a silvery backdrop of sage. So elegant. So sophisticated.

Here come the first of the late-flowering doubles, too; no sophistication here – my goodness, what flirts they are! ‘Creme Upstar’ is a gorgeously ruffled confection in peaches and cream, all flouncy and blousy and frivolous beneath those graceful ladies.

Meanwhile, ‘Blue Spectacle’ is shamelessly kicking up her frilly can-can skirts (admittedly very much purple) to the rapturous applause of a Californian poppy audience. How I’m going to miss these beauties when they’ve gone . . . but more are definitely planned for next spring.

Common sense says that if something is growing happily in local gardens then it is obviously disposed to thrive in the climate here and is a good choice for planting. Honesty is one of those flowers I noticed in abundance last year so raised a few plants from seed. Like wallflowers, it’s something I haven’t grown for years and I’d forgotten what an unassumingly pretty thing it is.

I love the way it has stitched itself into colourful little tapestries with other flowers. Here, in a sunny patch of calendula and ‘Mission Bells’ Californian poppies, softened with the mauve haze of verbena bonariensis.

On the opposite side of the lane, it’s mingling rather beautifully with a pink butterfly gladiolus. Lovely flower . . . and of course, those papery, silver seed pods are an anticipated delight.

Pansies are also modest little troopers; I didn’t have a huge success with raising them from seed (that was the story of last year, of which more later) but the few plants I scattered around have flowered non-stop and are making bold splashes of colour with those bright open faces.

Ah, enough of my indulgent little flowerfest for now . . . but before I move on to the important subject of food production, one final thought: never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the aforementioned verbena would gain official weed status in the garden! What a difference climate makes.

So to the business end of things and it’s been a complete pleasure to be busy in the patch this week, soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the burgeoning growth and raucous birdsong. Not only are we adjusting to a new climate here but to changes within that climate, like wheels within wheels. Last spring and early summer were disappointing at best, at times completely dire. Once storms Felix, Gisela and Hugo had finished with us an uncharacteristic gloom set in that seemed to last for months, as though – rather unfairly, I must say – Asturias had been singled out for its own private cloud. Nothing was easy; everything struggled; many things simply chose not to bother. How different it has been this year! We had a couple of weeks of winter in January but since then the weather has been blissfully benevolent, like a kind and loving friend wrapping us in a cosy blanket, brewing a warming cup of tea and running a hot, bubbly bath. Hell, this weather is so generous it would probably do the ironing and fill out our tax returns if we asked nicely.

Isn’t it just truly amazing how everything responds to such benign warmth and luxurious light levels? Last year, I sowed fresh parsnip seed four times before a tiny pinch deigned to germinate; this year, a single planting has produced enough parsnips to feed the entire village, and it’s the same story with carrots and beetroot. The peas, which have been a struggle every year but particularly last season, are so loaded in pods it’s frankly ridiculous. Where tender plants are concerned, I almost wept with frustration last year at having to resow many times; the cucumbers were fairly robust but it’s a miracle we ended up with anything else. The aubergines, which played that classic ‘we’re very fragile and want to die’ act until August (yes, August) are currently greeting me at the polytunnel door like a gaggle of giggling cheerleaders, pompoms aloft in glee. They will have to go into the ground very soon, a fact that prompted me to clear the spent winter salad leaves out of the tunnel this week in readiness. Shifting a pile of manure kept to one side especially for feeding that hungry patch, I found two squash plants that have pushed up (I assume) from the layer of homemade compost beneath the muck. They are, I hope, a happy symbol of things to come: this year, there will be no stopping the growth.

There are other signs, too, so much promise of better things to look forward to. Our walnut harvest last year was a relatively poor one; now, as the trees unfurl their graceful bronze fingers, they are revealing a mass of fat green catkins; a bumper crop of nuts in the making, I’d like to think.

Of the Jerusalem artichokes we planted last year, not a single one survived. Oh come on, how could we possibly not succeed with those renowned thugs? Have no fear: new tubers have been planted and there’s a definite flourish of exuberant activity which suggests a more successful crop this year.

Our neighbours were keen to check we hadn’t missed the official onion planting date this week; I’m not sure how it works, but on certain days in spring suddenly the whole village is out planting something or other and this week it was las cebollas. Thankfully, we were able to show we hadn’t let the side down (actually, we planted them some weeks ago but please don’t tell); we have several rows of onions grown from sets that have trebled in size this week and the smaller specimens raised from seed seem committed to closing the gap as rapidly as possible.

I read this week the somewhat controversial assertion by Matthew Appleby that we should metaphorically “hug a slug” in order to become “super organic gardeners.” Furthermore, it would be better to let fruit and vegetable plants die or even choose not to garden at all than to have to kill anything (which for me begs the question of what exactly we are going to eat). Well, each to their own, I say; everyone is entitled to their opinion but personally I have no intention of putting slug hugging or snail snuggling activities into practice any time soon. I am a huge fan and champion of wildlife and not a single fibre of my being is predisposed to inflicting hurt or death on other living creatures. In fact, I can honestly say I am happy to share what we grow in the garden with other things as long as there is plenty to go round. That said, I am not prepared to sit back and see several months’ worth of food destroyed without doing something about it. Our garden is a totally organic, slightly chaotic, hugely productive, wildlife-friendly patch . . . but fast-food outlet for gastropods it is not. It’s a question of balance and the point is that it’s perfectly possible to grow good crops of wholesome foods without the need to commit garden pest genocide – and we are the living proof of that.

When we moved here, there were snails everywhere. Zillions and zillions of them, like some weird sci-fi horror film. I had never seen anything like it. We assumed it had something to do with the warm, damp climate but also decided there were two further overwhelming reasons. First, the building technique employed by former residents who had constructed walls using bricks laid on their sides which meant the holes ran horizontally rather than vertically. Every hole created a perfect snail home so whole walls were like some towering highrise hotel . . . and believe me, they were full to capacity.

The vegetable garden was surrounded by just such a wall so removing it was one of our first jobs; not only did it drastically reduce snail habitat but it opened up the fantastic view and allowed us to create the sitting area which is now our most-used and favourite ‘room.’ Win-win.

Second, beyond that wall the vegetable patch was a mess comprising a huge pile of manure covered in bracken and a riotous jungle of mustard and cabbages – in short, snail and slug heaven. (I’d forgotten about all those plastic bottles, too, but that’s another story.)

Clearing the vegetation and spreading the muck had an instant impact on snail and slug numbers; building a drystone wall to form a terrace created the perfect habitat for lizards and toads who have a tremendous appetite for the slimy ones. Bit by bit, the balance was being tipped towards a more stable and sustainable food chain.

Manual extraction of pests is another method we use; yes, it’s hard and not overly pleasant work picking buckets of slugs, snails and caterpillars off plants and ‘relocating’ them but it’s worth the effort if it means a crop is saved and it certainly beats throwing toxic chemicals or slug pellets around (both of which I abhor). Drastically increasing the numbers of flowering plants has not only helped to attract a far wider range of insects including essential pollinators, but also the likes of hoverflies, ladybirds and parasitic wasps whose larvae are voracious predators. The recent Guardian report of global insect collapse and possible extinction within 100 years – 100 years!!!!!!!! – is the single most chilling thing I have read in a long time. Instead of choosing not to garden, I passionately believe now is the time we desperately need to be doing all the gardening we can.

So, what is our situation now? Do we still have problems with slugs, snails and other destructive beasties? Yes, of course we do. No matter what the climate throws at us this year – cruel or kind – there will be battles ahead, I have no doubt. Do we have enough vegetables to eat? Yes, we certainly have. A couple of weeks ago, I planted out 26 mixed summer and autumn calabrese plants, of which five were chomped. Having some spare plants, I replaced them and so far all 26 are still there and thriving without a single slug pellet, cabbage collar or pigeon net in sight. Let’s put that into perspective for a moment. There are only two of us and even if all our promised visitors this year (what a busy and exciting time we’ve got to come!) were to arrive en masse, there would still be at least 20 plants of calabrese too many. If we lose three-quarters of the plants, we will still have more calabrese than we could ever really need. ‘Plant plenty’ is a great motto for garden survival.

Variety, too, is a brilliant strategy. Forget monoculture, small amounts of lots of different things are a much better idea; not only does it give us a far more interesting diet but it helps to spread the risk of pest attacks through the year. It’s amazing just what you can do with modest pickings. Favourite veggie dish of the week here was shredded kale quickly braised in olive oil and a splash of wine, topped with lightly steamed purple-sprouting broccoli and asparagus and a handful of raw baby peas . . . and I’m proud to report that not a single slug died in the making of that dish. Still don’t want to hug them, though. 🙂

Recycling the seasons


“The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another.  The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.”


Henry Van Dyke, Fisherman’s Luck

One of my biggest concerns about writing a blog for any great length of time – especially one which revolves around our daily life here – is the danger of recycling the same old stuff over and over. I believe writing should be fresh and original, not stuck in a ‘yes, folks, here’s our squash harvest for the umpteenth time’ sort of rut. So, as the peach blossom paints its gorgeous pink tracery against the bluest of skies in keeping with the season, I’ve had to ask myself if anyone really wants to hear about it once again?

I’ve been giving the ‘same old, same old’ conundrum a lot of thought this week while zipping about outside in full gardening mode (isn’t the garden just the best place to muse on all things philosophical?) and have come to the conclusion that some amount of annual repetition is surely inevitable when we lead an outdoor life that is very attuned to the seasons. The peach trees are flowering, the verges are jewelled with carpets of primroses, violets and wild strawberries, the garden is a-flutter with yellow butterflies and heavy with the heady scent of narcissi, the pied wagtails and redstarts are posturing on top of the barn and the midwife toads are beeping their staccato rhythm from the stone walls . . . because that’s what happens at this time of year.


In all honesty, there’s a certain reassurance in the familiar, isn’t there? Winter passes, spring comes. Seeds are planted, harvest follows. Look closely, though, and it’s clear that not everything dances to the same inevitable tune; nature never fails to play an interesting hand and often leaves us guessing as to its next move. This time last year, Storm Felix was viciously stripping the delicate peach blossoms from their branches before they had even opened; the result was one single, lonely (and very precious) fruit in the summer. This year, the trees are buzzing with the attention of industrious pollinators, the spent petals drifting dreamily on the soft, sunlit air like confetti. We aren’t counting our chickens but there is hope for a good peach harvest this year.

The harder I look, the more I realise just how much change there is around me; caught in the circles and spirals of time and engrossed in the familiar it’s all too easy to lose sight of things that are different. With the final recycled slates fixed in place, we now have a proper terrace for our outdoor furniture: what a novelty to have everything flat and level! Newly oiled (an annual treatment that has kept them perfectly serviceable for over twenty years now), the table and chairs have already been pressed into regular use, the beautiful weather allowing us to eat our meals outside once again and indulge in a barbecue or two.

I love the business of planting seeds, it is such a simple yet satisfying thing to do so it has been a happy, happy week in my little gardening world. I am endlessly fascinated by the immense potential stored in each tiny little powerhouse. How is it possible that the papery teardrops of parsnip, the chunky rubble of beetroot and finely ground pepper of carrots can lead to crops of such satisfying and sustaining vegetables? What an incredible thing it is that those tiny fragile seedlings taking their first tentative steps in the warmth of the propagator will morph into a summer jungle of aubergines, peppers and chillies. What will be this year’s successes and frustrations, I wonder? It’s not all about food, either; I’ve planted a somewhat rustic tripod of sweet peas at the top of the garden in the hope of enjoying their gentle colours and sweet scent from the terrace. Seed packets are a mine of information and instructions but never mention eternal optimism – surely the most essential tool of the gardener who plants them!

I’ve been planting freesia corms, too, popping them in amongst other plants in pots and borders. The first handful I planted a couple of years ago seemed thoroughly confused by the climate: forget ‘plant in March, flowers in June’ – this was a serious case of ‘plant in March, do nothing for months then finally flower the following January’ (by which time I’d forgotten all about them). Those originals are happily flowering again now and smell so delightful that the temptation to plant more was too overwhelming to ignore . . . and they can flower whenever they’re ready as far as I’m concerned. I’m trying to turn a blind eye to the dainty butterfly gladioli which – in a copycat crime – are threatening to flower any day now instead of last summer when expected but really, why worry? Predictability is a bit overrated, I’ve decided. What will happen, will happen: just go with the flow.


Whilst on the subject, let me talk about peas which have been, rather surprisingly, one of the least predictable vegetables we have grown here. True, we’ve enjoyed reasonable crops each year- even frozen a few bags – but only after much muttering and several re-plantings every time. No germination, sporadic germination, seedlings munched from above and below: you name it, our poor beleaguered pea rows have had it. This year looks to buck the trend (I’m whispering tentatively here) as the autumn-planted ‘Douce Provence’ are in abundant rude health and covered in flowers whilst a row of the same planted earlier this year are bombing up behind them. At last!


Even better, the neighbouring broad beans are also in full bloom and wafting their delicious scent all over the garden; here is the promise of good food in a few weeks’ time. I love the nearby sunny patch of self-set poached eggs plants which expands with every year, drawing in those essential pollinators with their cheery little faces.


More sunshine, too, from another shameless self-setter: the first Californian poppies of the year have unfurled their radiant petals. If previous years are anything to go by, they will flower for months and pop up literally everywhere around the garden.

Last year, we finally cracked the correct timings for planting winter brassicas; although I then seemed to spend weeks pulling off armies of snails and caterpillars as the weather veered from warm and wet to hot and dry, in the end it all paid off. We are still eating an abundance of chard and several varieties of kale but centre stage now definitely belongs to purple sprouting broccoli. I can happily eat mounds of this stuff and we are doing so quite literally every day, experimenting with some new ingredients we have recently acquired. Lightly steamed PSB dressed in pomegranate molasses? Oh, man!

This time last year, my first plantings of tulips were gathering strength in gorgeously vibrant hues of purple and magenta which brought colour and charm to the garden for many weeks. I opted for a wider palette in the autumn and this year it is ‘Don Quichotte’ who is first off the blocks, such a beautiful deep rose bloom with silky petals subtly patterned like feather icing.

Also new this year are wallflowers which, along with lupins and damson trees, remind me so much of my Granny’s Shropshire garden. She used to call them gillyflowers which I’ve always thought to be a far prettier name for them. I haven’t grown them for years but having seen a fantastic bed of them in a coastal garden here last year, I decided to raise a basic mix from seed in keeping with my ‘when in Rome’ approach to new plantings. They grew fast and strong and are scattered along the top of a stone wall, currently creating a bee frenzy with their rich velvety petals and clove-spiced fragrance; I counted no fewer than five different bee species on one plant. I’m hoping they will spread themselves about but I’ll raise a few more plants from seed again this year just to be sure. Nothing like a bit of floral belt and braces.

It’s not just in the garden where we have been enjoying new things. The inspired gift of a box of artisan flours has seen us pushing the bounds of sourdough bread making further than before; it’s like a culinary historical world tour, travelling from ancient golden khorasan wheat to darkest Scandinavian rye. I love the nutty malthouse loaves and rolls we’ve been baking this week, just perfect for a gardener’s lunch with a salad of freshly foraged leaves, herbs and flowers and a couple of kiwis straight from the vine.

Another new culinary delight we are trying this year is mushrooms – our own homegrown ones. This is something I’ve been keen to try for a while so I was very excited to finally get things organised this week and a rather damp, cool morning seemed somehow appropriate to set up an outdoor workshop and get stuck in. (As an aside, by lunchtime we were in shorts and t-shirts in brilliant sunshine . . . such is the Asturian climate!) We are growing three kinds of mushroom – shiitake, oyster and lion’s mane – using the inoculated log method. First, the chestnut logs cut from our wood a couple of weeks ago needed drilling with evenly spaced holes.

Next, a spawn dowel was tapped into each hole, about fifteen of the same variety per log.

We set up our camping stove to melt a tablet of cheese wax; on hindsight, we missed a trick – should have put a coffee pot on there, too! Using a special applicator, each hole was then sealed with wax to prevent wild fungi spore from colonising the log; any scars or cuts in the bark were given the same treatment.

Finally, I marked the top of each log with a dot of paint so that we can identify them. It’s apparently possible to shock the shiitake into fruiting by dunking the logs in cold water so it occurred to me it would be helpful to know which was which.

We stacked the logs against a cool, damp, north-facing wall under the kiwi. This is an area that receives no direct sunlight and in a few weeks’ time, the logs will be completely shaded by the kiwi leaves but still exposed to rainfall. If the logs look like drying out, they will need to be soaked in water so we have an empty water butt and endless supply of spring water at the ready. Otherwise, it’s a waiting game. It will be several months before anything happens – if indeed anything does happen – but it’s a fascinating activity and another reminder that the seasons can still bring new and exciting ideas to try.

In contrast, the biggest project of the week has brought with it a definite sense of Groundhog Day: re-covering the polytunnel. Now I have written about this nightmare before and if ever there was a purchase we shouldn’t have made, it was this one. Over the years in several gardens, we have always opted for a sturdy polytunnel with a heavy duty translucent polythene cover buried very deeply on all sides. Given the minimal flat area we have here and the difficulty of digging trenches in such a tight space, we persuaded ourselves to stray from the tried and trusted and to buy a tunnel with a flimsy white cover, barely long enough to bury. It has been bad news from the start. As Storm Felix was busy doing for the peach harvest, it also wreaked havoc with the tunnel, lifting the entire thing out of the ground at 6am one morning and blowing it over trees and fences down the valley a good 300 metres in a rather surreal Mary Poppins moment. We had to retrieve it in high winds and torrential rain (thankfully by some miracle it had landed on a track rather than in the middle of a field), rebuild it and lash it down with guy ropes. It sounds funny now but believe me, it really wasn’t at the time, especially as the staging and several trays of young seedlings all ended up trashed at the bottom of the orchard.

Since then, the polythene has gradually shredded and wriggled away from the frame so that the entire thing ended up being more holes and gaffer tape than anything else. To be fair (and believe me, that really sticks in my throat) it has held out over winter and given us a great crop of salad leaves and spring onions, with chard, beetroot and kohl rabi following on to help fill the hungry gap. However, something had to be done as we couldn’t face another year of this leaking-like-a-sieve nonsense; time for Operation Revamp. The first job was to strip off the old cover and dig out trenches as deep as possible all the way round.

Roger then built sturdy wooden frames at each end to give us something to stretch the new polythene round. The flimsy doors are welded on so we are stuck with them but he was able to fashion new wooden frames, polythene covers and stronger catches; already, it was starting to look much sturdier.

One thing we have learnt from previous polytunnel construction is that – along with a good sense of humour, a supply of strong coffee and three pairs of extendable arms each – a warm, still day is the very best asset when it comes to putting on the polythene. Wind, obviously, adds an element of chaos to the process and is to be avoided at all costs; the warmth of the sun, on the other hand, helps to soften the polythene and makes it easier to stretch tightly over the frame. In fact, the trick is to drape it over the frame (actually, grapple or wrestle might be better verbs here) then take a tea break while the polythene sunbathes for a while and hey presto, job done.

Okay, it’s never quite that easy, especially in a situation like ours where we were literally clinging to a precipice above the steep fall below the kiwi along that right-hand side. However, several hours of stretching and pleating and burying later, it was finished; not the most professional job, perhaps, but a hundred times better than before and certainly many times warmer. The first bumble bee was in after the yellow mizuna flowers before we’d even finished!

With the ground forked over and the staging back in, all that’s left to do now is grab seed trays and compost and start spreading some seedtime love. Ah, well – it’s not all peach blossom, then. 🙂