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. 🙂

Sunshine and soap

Sunshine is such a precious gift and never more so than at this time of year. We often celebrate with a special meal on the day of the winter solstice, or else ‘midwinter’ three days later, the point at which it is possible to tell that the sun has begun its journey north once more; as that coincided with Christmas Eve this year, we decided to have our feast on Nochebuena in the local way. For me, it is a deeply meaningful celebration, an acknowledgement of the way in which sunlight is essential to all life and the key to our very being. The worst of winter is ahead but after that, spring will come once more.

Although the shorter days see the natural world slowing down here after summer’s frantic activity, things are far from dormant. The garden still jingles with birdlife: blackbirds and blackcaps already staking their claim to the kiwis; robins bobbing across the mulched bare earth in search of skinny pink worms; chaffinches and great tits call in simple cadences whilst long-tailed tits chatter sociably through their acrobatics. I love the quiet charm of tiny green warblers, the cheekiness of wrens, the bravado of goldfinches and bluster of bullfinches who, even though they are stealing buds from the peach trees, are forgiven purely for their vibrant beauty. Above us, ravens croak and cough in high places, raptors soar and swoop on spiral trajectories and the silent, spectral heron stalks the river bank below. There is a pageant of colour and show in the floral world, too. No need for poinsettias here.

Lizards are basking in sunny spots, moles are making merry in the loamy earth and where ditches hold water they are gelled with frogspawn. We were woken by the persistent barking of a huge dog fox in the meadow behind the house and watched him through an open window, silvered in moonlight, as his confident call reverberated around the valley. Pure magic. As if the sun itself is honouring the season, we have been treated to a week of spectacular sunsets; I have watched mesmerised as clouds have mingled and morphed and colours bled and changed and deepened in a transient canvas of sheer artistry. No need for tinsel and fairy lights, either.

With Christmas Day free from distraction, we took a flask of coffee and headed out to walk along a path which circles the mountain opposite. It is a walk I love, following the curving contours of the mountain and enjoying stunning views of the sunlit valley below and distant peaks fading into hazy blues.

What sheer delight to feel the warmth of that sun! We walked long stretches without speaking, not because we had nothing to say to one another but simply because the silence was so profound; no sound of man or machine, not so much as a cat’s paw of wind in the trees . . . so perfectly quiet we could hear the flutter of butterflies passing on their drowsy wings. The air was suffused with the aromatic spicy scents of sun-warmed pine and eucalyptus; I often wonder if our distinct lack of colds and winter bugs has anything to do with this daily dose of nature’s own aromatherapy?

At one point along the ridge it is possible to look across and see our little white house nestled in the meadows below sweeps of forest. What always strikes me about this view is just how high the mountain stretches away from us and how wild and untamed the countryside becomes just minutes from our door. We are so blessed to live in such a place.

This warm, dry, settled weather seemed just perfect for taking my first tentative steps into the world of soap making. It’s something I’ve often thought of doing but have backed away from because I know that lye is nasty stuff. That said, we no longer have small children or pets to worry about and I am a grown up after all, so the time had come to give it a go. Projects like this always excite me; like dyeing wool, making soap is a fascinating mix of science and art and leaves me pondering its intriguing history. How did someone discover that running rainwater through wood ash and mixing the resulting lye with fat could make something so useful? My intention was to use ingredients we had to hand to make a very basic ‘kitchen cupboard’ soap, one that would give me an idea of how the process works without involving any fancy stuff; my thinking was that if it wasn’t very good, I could at least use it for laundry. To that end, I chose to use olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and sweet almond oil with lemon essential oil for a subtle fragrance and antibacterial qualities; no colourants whatsoever.

Soap making requires distilled water. Our water comes into the house directly from a mountain spring so it is free of the chemicals found in mains water, very soft and mineral-rich . . . and that is a problem. Minerals in the water can affect how the lye behaves and can also cause ‘dreaded orange spots’ to appear as the soap cures. As the idea of buying plastic bottles of distilled water somehow seemed to go against the whole ethos of my project, I decided to make my own. I floated a heatproof glass bowl in a stockpot of water, brought it to the boil, inverted the lid and piled it with ice. Within half an hour, my bowl was full of distilled water . . . and as we have a plentiful supply of free water and free heat when The Beast is lit, this is a very sustainable method – and adds to the fun, too!

Having gathered everything I needed, I decided to set up my chemistry lab outside; I always prefer to do things outdoors when I can anyway and it made sense not to be creating unpleasant fumes in the house if it wasn’t necessary. Working in long sleeves, gloves, goggles and mask isn’t the most comfortable of situations but from my experiences in activities like dyeing and beekeeping I recognise the good sense in a disciplined approach to safety – better to feel slightly encumbered than suffer a chemical burn or lose an eye.

Unfortunately, at this point my trusty Technical Support Manager discovered that the adaptor plug I needed for our long extension had blown a fuse and we had no replacement to hand; this meant I couldn’t use the hand blender outside so a change of plan was needed – cue carting most of that stuff back up fourteen steps to the kitchen! I could still mix the lye and water outside, however, and this I did; I didn’t see any fumes given off but the rapid appearance of condensation on the bowl certainly suggested an energetic exothermic reaction was well under way. While the lye cooled, I mixed the oils together and heated them gently to melt the coconut oil.

Then for the exciting bit, starting the saponification process. I slowly stirred the lye into the oils then got busy with the hand blender. At first, the mixture looked like a thin pancake batter but within moments had thickened to a light ‘trace’ – leaving a faint trail like a whisked sponge mixture.

This indicated that the water and oils had emulsified: the point of no return. I added the essential oil and blended a little bit more until the batter was thick and creamy, then poured it into silicone moulds; covered and left in the warmth of the kitchen, I needed to leave them for them for at least 24 hours to set . . . oh, the anticipation!

The moment of truth. I’m not sure whether I was nervous, excited or both but the soaps felt firm enough, so I took a deep breath and carefully turned them out of their moulds.

Amazing! I mean, obviously I knew I was trying to make soap and having read a couple of books and watched zillions of video clips, I was hopeful it would work . . . but isn’t it a lovely thing to try something so new and different, to watch a fascinating process unfold right in front of your eyes? The soaps looked and smelt like creamy lemon panna cotta, almost good enough to eat, and I was desperate to dive in and have a good wash! We could use them now but they are better if cured and will last longer in the shower that way. I’ve put them on an airy shelf in the airing cupboard (yes, we have one in the bathroom at last . . . also, we have a bathroom :-)) where they can stay for the next four to six weeks. I’m turning them daily and watching for changes in their texture and appearance; if the dreaded orange spots appear, we can still use them but I might have to rethink my distilled water plan for future projects. So far, so good.

Encouraged by my initial success, I’m now eagerly awaiting a parcel of new and more exciting ingredients so I can have a go at making solid shampoo bars. In the meantime, I’m wandering around the garden, lanes and woodland wondering what natural resources I might be able to use in creating my own toiletries.

What a wonderful excuse for being outside, filling my lungs with fresh mountain air, turning my face to the sun, drinking in the views and feeling such overwhelming joy at being alive. January might be looming, but my heart and soul are singing with soap and sunshine. Happy New Year, one and all!:-)

Ramblings

In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks. 

John Muir

I love a good walk. I run regularly because I appreciate the health benefits it brings but given the opportunity to put one foot in front of the other at a more leisurely pace, I’m first in the queue. For me, it’s such a simple, lovely activity that fulfils my fidgety need to be outdoors and moving . Of course it’s interesting to set personal challenges but there’s no need to be bagging Wainwrights or marching up Monros; it’s always fun to explore new places but in all honestly, there is a deep pleasure and quiet joy to be had by going through the door, choosing a direction and wandering around locally. To immerse myself totally in nature and watch the seasons unfolding in tiny detail is a privilege I will never take for granted.

Human beings are designed to move so it goes without saying that walking is good for us, both physically and mentally. I was fascinated and delighted to read recently that GPs in the Shetland Isles have started prescribing ‘nature’ to help their patients. What a truly wonderful and inspired idea that is. No surprise that it is based on a Scandinavian tradition; let’s face it – our northern cousins excel when it comes to understanding the true benefits of time spent outdoors and how much better if walking in fresh air and communing with nature proves a more successful remedy than medication.

I suspect there is an element of ‘prescribed nature’ here already. Walking is a huge Asturian pastime and plenty of people pass through the village on their daily jaunt, many of them very elderly; we often see a lady who walks literally miles on crutches and a chap who carries an oxygen bottle over his shoulder as he goes. There’s no such thing as bad weather stopping play, either – just take your brolly and carry on! I can’t be sure but a big part of me thinks there may well be a connection between this happy walking habit and the astonishing longevity in our valley.

Although I am happy to wander in solitude, there is something very special about walking with others, too. It came as no great surprise when downloading the photos from our recent trip away to find most of them had been taken on walks. I love walking with our grandchildren; there is something so precious about feeling a warm, trusting little hand in mine, now tugging me along (‘Come on, Granny!’) impatient to be off with a hop, skip and jump, now dragging backwards to look at things, poke with sticks, splash in puddles.

What an amazing thing it is, this opportunity to see the world once again through the eyes of a child, with their astounding capacity for observation, curiosity and wonder.

A long walk is a much-loved tradition whenever we get together with Sam and Adrienne, usually punctuated with large quantities of delicious home-cooked food! This time was no exception: a hearty breakfast of all-too-moorish pain aux raisins set us up for a walk along the River Ouse to Lewes. So many of our walks in West (and East) Sussex seem to have a literary connection and this time it was the turn of Virginia Woolf, passing the pretty house in Rodmell where she lived before tragically taking her own life in the river. The waters were turbulently tidal, the banks seaweed- strewn and studded with gulls; the view drew our eye constantly towards Lewes in the distance, dominated by its formidable Norman castle.

There is something about this landscape which always imbues me with an overwhelming sense of history; the very spirit of the rolling hills, chalk streams, swathes of woodland, richly fertile land and wide, far-reaching skies seems to whisper of the successive peoples who came and made it their own. 

Lewes has a very colourful history, one of the legacies being the lively Bonfire Night celebration; preparations were well underway for this year’s event as we entered the town. We sat in the peaceful grounds of the Priory, eating our picnic (ah yes, more delicious home baking!) and enjoyed the play of sunlight on the autumn colours.

What a place this must have been before its inevitable destruction during the Dissolution of the Monasteries: the Priory church alone was longer than Chichester Cathedral. I was fascinated by the Battle Memorial and as a passionate gardener, thought the medicinal and kitchen gardens were a wonderful touch. We wandered through the pretty streets up to the castle, then back along the river once more. 



Home again in Asturias and no surprise that to celebrate my birthday this week, another walk was on the cards. My first idea had been to wander from home and climb the mountain behind the house in a seven-mile loop of forest and stunning scenery. However, the need for a post office and butter (we hadn’t taken account of birthday baking needs when we last shopped!) suggested a long stroll along the coast path near Luarca might be a better idea. I love this stretch between the beautiful sweeping sands of Playa de Barayo and the pretty harbour town of Puerto de Vega, it is a place I never tire of.


For me, this is exactly how a coast path should be: lots of ups and downs along the clifftops, ins and outs around headlands and hidden coves, far-reaching views along the coastline, carpets of wildflowers, flurries of birdlife and that deliciously intoxicating sea air. I much prefer the seaside away from the hectic summer months, there is something fantastically wild and untamed and invigorating about it in December . . . although quite honestly, the weather was so beautifully warm and the air so soft and butterfly-laden, it felt just like summer! 

Immersion in nature here is complete. Apart from a few solitary silhouetted fisherman perched on rocky outcrops, motionless as herons, we saw no-one. In the soft sunshine and low light of the season, colour spooled across the landscape like bold brushstrokes on canvas and with every step and every breath I felt an intense awareness of the four elements at play. Fire. Water. Earth. Air. What greater way to mark the anniversary of my birth than in such a joyful celebration of the natural world and my connection with all things in the worldwide web of life? Good medicine, indeed.

To round off a perfect day – before cooking a lovely meal together –  a glass of bubbly in the garden, faces turned to the warmth of the evening sunshine. Nature, it seemed, hadn’t quite finished with us . . . 

Ah, John Muir certainly knew what he was talking about. Here’s to him! 🙂

Wandering and wondering

We go shopping as infrequently as possible; it’s not something either of us ever particularly enjoys but at this time of year I come to detest it as the inexorable Christmas bombardment greets us at the shop door. What is that all about? Christmas is two months away . . . are we the only people left in modern society who are actually still enjoying October? Are we unusual in not wanting to spend at least a sixth of the year focusing on one day in December? Walking into a DIY shop out of bright, warm, Spanish sunshine to be greeted by a forest of plastic Christmas trees, snowflakes and illuminated glitter-sprinkled nativity scenes was just downright weird; who wants to look at Father Christmas wrapped up in all his red, beardy finery when we are still in shorts and sandals? One of the loveliest things about our simple life is the fact that we can practise true mindfulness in the sense of enjoying all the small, special things that are happening in the present rather than waiting for the present (at Christmas or whenever). When Roger went out one evening this week to shut the sheds as it went dark, he came back with a handful of rosebuds he had picked for me; small loving gestures like that – little surprises that are totally unexpected – are more precious to me than anything he could buy and wrap and stick under a tree.

IMG_3324

So, how lovely to escape the Christmas consumerist madness and retreat to our little haven in the mountains once again. There has been so much to celebrate this week, not least the continued gorgeous weather that keeps us wrapped in sunshine and toasty warmth. We have been harvesting figs from both trees – one with white-fleshed fruits, the other pink – in an attempt to beat the blackbirds and blackcaps to them. They are so delicious, sweet and succulent and I love them best of all sun-warmed straight from the tree.

IMG_3347

Although the walnut harvest didn’t look too promising, we’ve been nicely surprised by the amount we have collected so far and there are still plenty left in their green cases on the trees; no problems with the birds there, it’s the wild boar we have to keep at bay!

IMG_3343

Look closely at this walnut tree and you can see there’s rather more than nuts to be picked. Yes, that is a Russian Pink Fairy squash climbing through the branches! I lifted the parent plant a few weeks ago but the stem had sent down roots in several places and this one has just kept on growing and has produced a couple of extra fruits. Madness!

IMG_3340

Having nurtured our little lemon tree through far too many winter storms, how exciting to find a single baby fruit on it. There is another flush of blossom, too, and still plenty of pollinators around to do the business so maybe there will be more fruits to come. In the meantime, I am keeping my eye on this brave little beauty. Picking our own lemons . . . now that’s a rather special treat to look forward to. 🙂

IMG_3334

I know I have said it many times, but wandering around the garden picking bits and pieces for our dinner always brings me a huge amount of pleasure and I feel enormously grateful that we can enjoy such a wealth of fresh, wholesome food every day. Although things like cucumbers and French beans are over, we are still harvesting huge amounts of peppers both outdoors and in the polytunnel, along with aubergines, Florence fennel, carrots, chard, courgettes, several types of kale, cabbage and lettuce. We treated ourselves to the first parsnip and leek this week, we don’t have a big crop of either but they are huge so we can stretch them a long way and they were truly delicious.

IMG_3329

The tunnel will really come into its own now, taking us through the winter with a good variety of salad leaves including red and green mizuna, mustard, rocket, wild rocket and coriander. Oh, the sheer joy of picking the freshest, greenest, zingiest salad bowl of baby leaves this week!

IMG_3417

As spaces open up in the garden, I have been turning the soil to clear it of weeds, preparing to spread a good mulch of manure as an autumn feed. It’s such hard work on the slopes, every forkful has to be thrown uphill to stop it all rolling down the mountainside and where the ground is slippery I tend to do a strange backwards moonwalk in my wellies! It hasn’t been helped by the fact that the moles have had a field day along the bottom of the garden (their furtive tunnelling conveniently hidden in the squash jungle) so the path is falling away; a terrace wall along there is definitely on the to-do list for next year. Little velvet-coated annoyances aside, I love turning the soil like this; it is dark and deep and there is something wonderful about that rich, earthy smell. A good rest over winter to let the worms and weather do their work then all will be set for seedtime once again.

IMG_3344

Autumn is very slow to arrive here, it tiptoes in so quietly and gently that we barely notice it is here. There has been a subtle shift in the light and colours playing across the landscape this week, some gentle hints of golds and browns although everything is still predominantly green.

IMG_3411

The fungi have popped up overnight like – well – mushrooms, marching across the meadow in perfect formation.

IMG_3405

IMG_3406

I found theses in the wood; no idea what type they are but they reminded me of drop spindles!

IMG_3396

Between the fungi, there is a wide and wild sweep of autumn crocus with their delicate mauve petals and saffron centres. So beautiful.

IMG_3404 (2)

IMG_3403 (2)

I wandered through the woods to my Contemplation Stool and my favourite leafy glade bathed in golden afternoon sunlight. There weren’t as many signs of autumn as I’d imagined although the chestnut and birch trees caught against the blue sky were doing their bit. I sat for a few moments listening to the birds and reflected on how far from all that plastic Christmas madness the moment was.

IMG_3398

IMG_3401

IMG_3400

I love this little patch of paradise and the fact that we are both so content to spend most of our time here; it’s nothing for the car to stay parked for a fortnight or more without going anywhere. That said, we enjoy travelling and visiting new places and the mind-broadening stimulation and enrichment that can bring. Now the house renovation is almost done, we have more time to look outwards so a charity race in Vigo last weekend gave us the perfect excuse to pack our running shoes and head off to somewhere different. We travelled down through Galicia into a landscape very different to this one; instead of mountains there were gently rolling hills with large arable farms set amongst great swathes of forest, reminding me very much of parts of France (although the palm trees were a bit of  giveaway!). We stopped at Santiago de Compostela, the final destination for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who follow the network of Jacobean routes across France, Spain and Portugal every year. We live close to the Camino del Norte and were interested to see where the footsore pilgrims we see walking throughout the summer end up. As well as a magnificent cathedral, the city is also home to one of the oldest universities in Europe and many of the historic campus buildings are very beautiful. We wandered through the ancient streets and enjoyed the quiet courtyards full of flowers.

IMG_3358

IMG_3363

Every other building seemed to be a hostel or restaurant and little wonder – if I had walked all those miles then food, drink and sleep would definitely be top of my list! We passed through an archway where a busker was squeezing a jaunty tune out of traditional bagpipes and emerged into the sunlit Praza do Obradoiro in front of the cathedral. It is certainly a spectacular building but it was the pilgrims who caught my eye and attention: people from all over the world drawn to this place that to them is so very special. There were groups laughing and chatting, already sharing stories and memories; couples and individuals wandered around the square drinking in the sights and sounds or simply sat in quiet contemplation; others lay with heads cushioned on their backpacks, faces turned to the sun. Someone played a guitar. I watched a group of ladies well into their seventies clinging to one another as they took the final steps into the square, melting into tears and laughter. How far had they walked to get there, I wondered? What obstacles had they overcome, what memories would they treasure? There is a lively buzz to Santiago but in that square I felt so much more, a powerful wave of human emotions – joy, exhilaration, exhaustion, achievement, wonder, relief, completeness. Every one of those people had set themselves a huge personal challenge and I suspected that the journey had changed them in a profound way. I don’t share the pilgrims’ faith and I have no desire to follow the Camino myself but I felt very touched by being a part of their journey’s end: I salute every single one of them.

IMG_3357

From Santiago we headed south to Vigo. To be fair to the place, our hotel was at the not-so-pretty end (close to the race start) and we didn’t see the historic bits so I don’t want to sound too negative but honestly, the traffic was beyond crazy. Roger decided it was the worst place he had ever driven through in his life (which is saying something) and he ended up using satnav for the first time ever (which is really saying something). Our hotel was comfy and the food was great but we are not naturally city people and were happy to head out of the chaos and explore further afield. We followed our noses down the coast road south with no precise plan. I love wandering about like that, just doing our own thing off the beaten track; we have always found the prettiest and best of places more by accident than design.

IMG_3364

IMG_3366

We turned inland and wound our way through miles of vineyards, the vines clambering high over supports and starting to flaunt their autumn fire. A bridge carried us across the Minho river and into Portugal, where we decided to carry on down the coast. Well, why not?  We loved the pretty cobbled seaside town of Caminha where the wild Atlantic waves crashed against rocks that looked like the remnants of an ancient lava flow.

IMG_3372

We wandered barefoot along a wide expanse of beach, the silver sand sparkling with silica stars. Everything was so blue, it was truly beautiful and delightfully hot!

IMG_3376 (2)

IMG_3377

Onwards to Viana do Castelo where we climbed up to the Santuário de Santa Luzia, an iconic mountaintop church, to enjoy the spectacular views down to the city and the coast beyond. We even ended up being part of a wedding celebration there which brought an added and unexpected moment to our day!

IMG_3378

IMG_3380 (2)

On Sunday morning we both ran in the Vigo Contra el Cáncer race and what an event it was with the best part of 5 000 people taking part in a 10k run and 5k walk / run. The streets were turned into a tidal wave of pink as people from all walks of life turned out to support the local charity. Like Santiago, the atmosphere tingled with emotion, many walkers and runners sporting photos of loved ones on their t-shirts. I have run in a couple of Race For Life events but this was on a totally different scale and it felt good to be part of such an incredible thing and to give something back to this lovely country that has made us so welcome.

44524491_1016839541822416_9096653931638947840_n

44399618_1016864285153275_504187812900241408_n

Home once more and now we have turned our thoughts to our next journey, the long trek north through France to the UK next week. Oh my goodness, I think we are going to find it a little chilly and it does feel strange digging out long trousers and warm jumpers while I’m still pootling about in shorts and sockless crocs! On the bright side, I might just get to try out my new mittens, all finished and ready to go. I so enjoyed this little project, creating something from nothing; now I’m pondering the other skein of purple Merino waiting in the wings – some snuggly slipper socks, perhaps?

IMG_3351

I’m still very much in creative energy mode so I’ve decided to capitalise by launching into something I’ve been thinking about making for several years: a designated bag for carrying my woolly projects when we go a-travelling. At home, I keep everything close to hand in a couple of wicker baskets but they aren’t practical for packing or lugging about on a plane or ferry. I usually end up stuffing a bit of sock knitting into the top of  a rucksack or – heaven forbid – my (hand)Bag of Doom, which is far from perfect. I’ve tumbled vague ideas around my mind about spinning a heap of chunky yarn, dyeing it in a range of colours then knitting a tapestry-style tote bag . . . but it hasn’t happened; hardly surprising when you consider it has taken me over six months to spin 100g of fleece this year. (It’s finished and skeined but hasn’t made it to the dyepot yet; can’t rush these things.) In fact I could probably walk every route of the Camino in the time it would take to accomplish. So, at the risk of taking an easy way out, I’ve bought commercial yarn and opted for crochet instead.

IMG_3413

Not surprisingly, Attic 24 gave me the exact starting point I was looking for with Lucy’s Jolly Chunky Bag It’s possible to buy a kit but I wasn’t over fussed on the colour combinations (I used ‘Lipstick’ and ‘Fondant’ last year and I’m not a fan) so chose a different palette of colours for the yarn and buttons that are far more ‘me.’ I’ve decided to make the bag bigger than the stated pattern, hopefully roomy enough to cart blanket projects round in and I’ve also bought a couple of magnetic clasps as I think being able to close the bag is a good idea. This is the first time I’ve used chunky yarn in a crochet project and it whizzes up like a dream; in no time at all, the circular base was done . . .

IMG_3416

. . . and as I work round and round the sides, it’s starting to look more like a bag every minute. I am enjoying this activity so much, it’s the perfect simple, therapeutic wool messing for enjoying outside in the evening sunshine and with any luck will be finished in time to stuff with travel projects next week. Well, if I’m going to be a bag lady I might as well do it in style! 🙂

IMG_3419

 

Muses and mittens

Having decided to have a break from writing this blog – just too many other things to do – I find that I am missing it for the oddest and most unexpected of reasons: running! I started running regularly again in August after a break of many, many months but this week, on a 10k run in the crystalline freshness of early morning, I suddenly realised how many of my half marathon training runs last year had been spent with my head in Blog World. It’s a system that served me so well: letting ideas for posts wash over me, exploring new ideas, crafting and drafting posts, playing with words and descriptions . . . while all the time, the miles slipped away beneath my feet without me even noticing. What a wholesome feeling it was, too, to end my run tired but energised and inspired with an urgent need to sit down and write: perfect workout for body and mind alike. Of course, I could simply compose virtual blogs in my head and not write them but that seems like a waste of time so in the interests of maintaining some kind of running discipline – currently 10k or more every other day –  I’m back (for the time being, at least!). 🙂

IMG_3221 (2)

I love this time of year here, one foot still firmly planted in summer but a soft, oh-so-subtle slide into autumn. My morning runs are a complete joy (well, apart from the running bit), such a golden opportunity to appreciate what is going on around me as nature shakes out her summery tail feathers whilst gently flirting with something fresher, crisper, duskier. The sunrise is a glory of colour as the mountain tops are set alight above the mist-strewn valley.

IMG_3240

This season always brings me an immense burst of creative energy, too; a compelling need to start new projects, to get busy and make things. Logic tells me this would make more sense in spring but life has its own ideas and the compulsion to create now is overwhelming. It could be an offshoot of my harvesting activities, a sort of wool-based version of picking, drying, storing – laying down comforting things for the colder months and leaner times; or perhaps it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that my active outdoors life in summer leaves little time or motivation for sedentary woolly activities. Whatever the reason, once I feel that itch I need to get scratching! My first thought is usually to launch into a new spinning project: I hear the tantalising whisper of Blue-Faced Leicester, Shetland, Kent Romney, Jacobs, those beautiful British breeds so perfect for socks . . . but not this time. The project sitting on my silent and  – to my shame – cobwebby wheel has been on there so long it must surely be a contender for ‘The longest time ever taken to spin 100g of Merino’ prize. Admittedly, I am spinning it very finely (it could even be laceweight in the final reckoning) but still, no excuses: I need to finish it so I can start planning its long overdue appointment with the dyepot. My fleece box must stay firmly shut for the time being.

IMG_3249

My knitting activity has ticked over through the year mainly in the shape of socks, my absolute favourite default project. I’ve had a lot of fun making colourful pairs as birthday gifts for family and friends and more recently I’ve turned my attention to replacing some of my old faithfuls that gave up the ghost last winter. It’s an ongoing pleasure, but not quite enough to satisfy my current restless woolly spirit.

IMG_3212

Having spent over a year creating crochet gift blankets in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colour combinations my basket now holds a single project – the ‘Cottage’ ripple blanket I bought with a birthday voucher last year. This is another bundle of cosiness for our little mountain house, so there is no end date and no mad dash to finish. It’s the perfect pick up-put down activity and what a pleasure it has been this week to enjoy a few quiet hooky moments in the sunshine under the fig tree (with a bowl of freshly-picked fruits for company). I want this blanket to take me time to finish, there is something so therapeutic about working up and down those colourful waves. Slowly, slowly. No rush.

IMG_3204

Very often, the inspiration I am looking for to kickstart my new project comes from what I see around me. It can be things as obvious as the rainbow hues of a sunset, leaves shrugging off their summer greenery in a blaze of autumn fire, the velvet kaleidoscope of a butterfly’s wing, the play of sunlight on the sea . . . but just as often, it’s something simple and unexpected (I think the right word is serendipity). For instance, last winter, I created a blanket based on a bowl of oranges, lemons and pomegranates sitting on our kitchen worktop.

IMG_0095

There have been plenty of those little moments that have caught my eye and started to play with my imagination this week. Standing at the bottom of a ladder holding the trug while Roger climbed up to pick figs, my gaze was drawn upwards to the beauty of the afternoon sunshine lighting up those huge leaves with shards of brilliant blue sky between. Gorgeous.

IMG_3200 (2)

Eucalyptus trees below a fingernail of moon and silhouetted against an early morning sky had a rhapsody of blues, greys and silvers running through my head.

IMG_3237

It’s all about shape and textures, too. A pile of walnuts drying in the sunshine, the passionflower still in bloom along the garden fence, the harvest of squash from the vegetable patch, the soft candyfloss fluff of morning clouds . . . there are possibilities in all these things if only I could pin them down.

IMG_3243

IMG_3241

IMG_3154

IMG_3258

In the end, though, the nudge I needed came from another blog. Reading Lucy’s (Attic 24) post about an upcycling project, I was reminded of the old Merino aran jacket I’d found in the attic earlier this year; well past it’s best and with an irreparable hole front and centre, I had decided to unravel it and re-knit it into something more useful. One day. Maybe. Instead of focusing on new yarns, perhaps now would be the time to do something with that instead? After all, it would be very much in keeping with my minimalist, want not, waste not attitude to life and a very rewarding thing to do . . . but what should I make? Thanks to Lucy again: her introduction to the stunning creativity of Nienke Landman had me hopping and skipping in delight. Embroidery on woollen garments? Something new and different and just the thing to set my mind whirling with possibilities. A quick tour round the internet to see what other clever people were doing with the same idea produced a treasure trove of ideas. My goodness, some of those pieces were so ornate, more embroidery than garment to my eye. Pieces of art in their own right, surely, but it was the sweet simplicity of Nienke’s designs that had appealed to me in the first instance. There is something softly Scandinavian about them, the good common sense of wrapping extremities in wool against the winter elements but adding a little burst of summer meadows to lift the spirits in the darkest of days. I was reminded of Adrienne’s  beautiful hand-painted wedding invitation which I have kept pinned on the kitchen wall; the simple strokes, the subtle colours . . . just perfect.

IMG_3227

So, what to make? My first thought was gloves as my current pair is looking decidedly the worse for wear. Gloves are great: they are practical, functional, efficient. Gloves keep your hands warm whilst leaving your fingers ready for action; you can pick chestnuts, stack logs, shape snowballs, wipe cold little noses. Gloves help you get the job done . . . which is why I finally opted for the lazy decadence of mittens instead. I haven’t worn mittens since I was a child and haven’t knitted any since our three were littlies. There is something wonderfully uncomplicated about them, wrapping your whole hand in a cocoon of cosy comfort, keeping fingers safe and snug and still. Two handsful of hygge. What a lovely idea. Once the big decision has been made, I know from past experience of this Autumn Itch thing that I have to start now.  Normally, I take time over projects; I like to ponder and plan, mull and muse. Instant gratification and impulse buys don’t even register as the faintest flicker on my radar. (Note: this in in contrast to my love of spontaneous things in life. The words, ‘Why don’t we drop everything and climb a mountain with a picnic?’ are music to my ears. Always.) Sewing up is my least favourite part of any knitting project but I have to admit unpicking comes a close second, it’s such a painstaking process and I knew any accidental nicking of a stitch in the fabric would mean a knot in the skein. At least the beauty of being a spinner is that my trusty niddy-noddy was on hand to make the job easier.

IMG_3216

In a relatively short time (and with not too much cursing and muttering) two former sleeves were unravelled, skeined, washed and hung to dry in the October sunshine.

IMG_3245

I couldn’t start the knitting until the wool was fully dry and balled but in the meantime, the now sleeveless body of the jacket at least gave me a backdrop for a little ’embroidery’ of my own. Something tells me the stitching will be much harder!

IMG_3205

The beauty of knitting mittens is that the pattern is super simple and after so much work with fine sock yarn, I’d forgotten how quickly an aran weight yarn will work up. By my own admission, though, it did feel a bit ridiculous sitting in flipflops and shorts and 30 C of heat knitting a thick woollen mitten. Ah, well.

IMG_3255

Knitting in the round would give a more professional finish (and no seam to sew) but I decided to use a flat pattern on two needles instead as it meant I could work any knots out to the sides. Also, it occurred to me that from a practical point of view it might be easier to work the embroidery on flat fabric rather than rummaging about inside a mitten tunnel; to that end, I’m not planning to sew the side seam until the pretty stuff is done. So, one mitten down and I’m resisting the temptation to start the embroidery until the second one is done.

IMG_3260

That doesn’t mean I can’t think about possible colour combinations, though . . .

IMG_3253

. . . and as for a design, well, I need to get my thought processes busy. Time for a run, then! 🙂

IMG_3208

 

 

 

 

 

 

The light fantastic

Summer has most definitely arrived here. The children have broken up for their lusciously long school holiday and the San Juan fiesta rockets have been crumping and thumping in the distance all over the weekend. We have put up the sunbrella, stacked the fridge with sparkling water and cooked our dinners outside on a wood fire every evening.

IMG_1982

Morning is now the time to get jobs done in the garden before the searing heat of the afternoon leaves everything  bleached of colour and soporific in the shimmering, silvered sunlight. There is no rush, though; I love nothing better than wandering out, still pyjama-clad, with my first tea mug of the day to breathe in the freshness and beauty of the moment and welcome the gift of a new day. The air is spiced with the scents of eucalyptus and lavender, sugared with roses, honeysuckles and sweet peas.

IMG_2441

Swallows skim the vegetable patch just above ground level, swooping and twisting like arrowheads through the plants with split-second precision (I wish I could capture them with the camera!). Even this early, the flowers are teeming with myriad insects. Lacy coriander blooms sparkle with dainty hover flies, lavender bristles with businesslike bees and everywhere – everywhere – there are butterflies, so many different varieties floating dreamily on painted wings.

IMG_2454

This is the time of day to truly appreciate the garden beauties; illuminated by a soft, dappled light they take on a whole new allure, a delicate elegance that is washed out by full sunlight. Here I can see every shadowed pleat and fold, every nuance of shade and texture, every mesmerising mystery of petal and sepal, stigma and style, frond and tendril, pattern and form.

IMG_2430

IMG_2445

IMG_2443

IMG_2449

IMG_2448

IMG_2444

IMG_2447

The wild ones, too, take on a fresh flush of beauty, clothing the garden’s margins in their soft hues and rowdy brights.

IMG_2440

IMG_2442

IMG_2424

There are the cheeky chancers, popping up uninvited in unexpected places: a nasturtium trailing cheerfully amongst the beetroot plants, satin Welsh poppies fluttering in the asparagus bed, a  self-set young walnut tree (they are weeds here, no question) on the edge of the patch. How can I be anything other than enchanted by their optimistic charm?

IMG_2415

IMG_2434

IMG_2435

So, to work and the main task of the week is weeding. Hoes are handy tools but I enjoy a bit of hand weeding, even more so now that I can take my time and do it with focus and attention rather than cramming it in around a hectic working week. I love the simple physical act of getting down amongst the plants and looking at them from new angles and through fresh eyes. I relish the smell of the earth, delight in the characters of the plants and cherish the work of tidying things up a bit. There is something so fundamentally satisfying about feeling the essence of all those scientific processes – germination, transpiration, pollination, photosynthesis and the like – going on all around me, not textbook descriptions but fizzing and buzzing with real in-the-flesh life. What a wondrous, miraculous thing it is! How captivating, too, are those vegetable plants caught in the teasing play of light and shadow; here even the mundane is taken to new heights.

IMG_2414

IMG_2416

IMG_2418

IMG_2420

IMG_2427

IMG_2428

IMG_2436

IMG_2432

IMG_2429

IMG_2439

Working in the garden? No, we’re unashamedly tripping the light fantastic, don’t you think? 🙂