The mole whisperer

Having spent much of another week on hard, physical work outside, I’ve found myself recalling Einstein’s famous take on insanity. How many times in our lives together have Roger and I left a beautiful and highly productive garden to start all over again from scratch, carving a new one out of a field . . . and why am I surprised that it doesn’t get any easier? Well, Albert knew a thing or two and perhaps we really are mad but I have to admit that, despite the aching muscles, the sore hands and the need to be tucked up asleep by nine o’clock every night, I still get a huge buzz from this kind of thing. It’s hard-going and progress can seem very slow: our ideas and plans twist and change and there’s a certain impatience in wanting to do everything at once, but gradually some sort of framework – a garden skeleton, if you like – is beginning to emerge. It’s fresh and new and exciting, like the spring growth unfurling so rapidly around us.

Without doubt, one of the hardest parts of our move is that we have gone from being almost self sufficient in fresh fruit and vegetables to having nothing to harvest except a few herbs. It feels strange having to buy them all but in a way, it’s an interesting experience which has given me the opportunity to reflect on how central the kitchen garden is to our lives and what an enormous proportion of our shopping the fruit and veg haul now is! It’s pretty expensive here (not that I mind that, I don’t believe food should be cheap) but there is a great range to choose from, the quality is excellent and I’m impressed by how much things have swung towards organic in recent years in France. Still, it’s just not the same as wandering around our own patch, foraging bits and pieces for dinner, so the race is on to get prepared and start planting . . . and if I seem a bit over-excited about the prospect of that first crop of fresh rhubarb (all mine, Roger doesn’t like it) then that’s because I truly am!

Although digging beds is still the predominant activity, there have been several other key jobs to be done this week and I’ve finally got round to tackling a couple of monstrous things that have been bugging me ever since we moved here. First, the compost heap, a bit of a Heath Robinson affair which looked to be a mess in need of sorting out. We have plans for a bigger and more organised system of (hopefully) three bays; anyone who has been reading my blog for a while will know I’m a bit of a compost monster and I do love a good heap so I’m very excited at the prospect of eventually having an all singing, all dancing set-up on the flat. Like everything else that will take time, so for now we will carry on with what was already here, albeit after a bit of a makeover. The left bay was full of oak leaves so I shifted them onto a hügel bed, then set about moving the compost pile across from the other side. Now I don’t mind jobs like this; partly-rotted vegetation really doesn’t bother me, it’s all part of a wonderful natural cycle, but I do have an issue when it’s all wrapped up in plastic, piles and piles of cellophane-type stuff plus various bits of metal and other non-biodegradable rubbish. Cue a lot of Muttleyesque muttering and cursing: this is not what composting is about! As with so many other things, what had seemed a fairly straightforward job took much longer than expected but the good news is I did find some decent compost at the bottom – enough to almost fill a dustbin, in fact – so it was well worth the effort. I’ve covered the heap in thick cardboard to allow nature to work its magic and started a new plastic-free pile on the right.

The second big task to be tackled was the bonfire site at the north end of the Potager area. Given it was a large circle of bare earth, this promised to be an almost ready-made planting bed once the pile of unburnt leaves and bits of wood had been removed but I hadn’t reckoned on the mess I’d find on closer inspection. The area had obviously been used to burn household rubbish and bits of furniture (illegal in France, and totally unnecessary given the highly efficient and accessible local rubbish and recycling facilities) and was full of plastic and metal detritus. Even worse, an old unburnt tarpaulin had been dumped on top and had shattered into thousands of tiny blue plastic strands which were everywhere; to say picking them all out of the soil was painstaking would be an understatement but it had to be done. Still, with the warm sun on my back and the air full of joyful bird noise and the sweet smell of spring, I did at least have lovelier things to focus on.

Back to the digging, and although it feels like we’re making progress in creating planting spaces, when we stop to consider everything we’re intending to grow, it still seems woefully inadequate. The original Shed Bed already has garlic, broad beans and parsnips in it and once we’ve added onions it will be full. The Secret Garden will be the shadiest patch through summer so perfect for lettuce and other salad leaves, beetroot, chard, celery, parsley, radicchio and overwintering brassicas like kale and broccoli which we know will flag in the full heat of summer.

The Bonfire Circle will be just the place for climbing beans with perhaps some cucumbers for company, underplanted with salad crops and (of course) some floral beauties to tempt the pollinators in. The potatoes get their own super-mulched patch and the squash will go on the hügelkultur hump from where they can scramble to their hearts’ content all over the grass; oh my, what a treat it’s going to be this year not having to chase them off down a mountainside! It doesn’t sound too bad until we think about all the crops that still need somewhere to grow and then it’s obvious the remaining bed isn’t going to cut the mustard, despite the fact we are extending it daily. I think the Flower Garden hügel (of which more in a moment) will have to house courgettes this year, the potatoes will have to accept some close neighbours in an extension to their bed and we will need to tackle the space currently covered for the eventual polytunnel sooner than expected if there is going to be anywhere for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. Phew! Maybe it would be easier to carry on buying veggies after all . . .

Given the pressure to organise the Potager, it might seem an indulgence to be busy creating the Flower Garden, too, but knowing from experience how long it can take for things to become established, it’s important to at least make a start. I have to say that ‘flower garden’ is a bit misleading in some ways; the ‘flower’ bit simply implies they will be the predominant feature but there will be no shortage of vegetables and herbs in there, too. Although I’m capitalising the various areas for ease of description we don’t see the patch as separate gardens but something more holistic, so the Flower Garden is somewhere that should sit comfortably behind the house, morphing into a Wild Patch on one side and Orchard on the other. The fly in the ointment is the shed on the north side which is something of an eyesore; we know from old photos that originally it was much smaller – just the part on the right with the guttering – but it has been extended greatly in recent years and yes, that poor oak tree really is now ‘growing’ from inside it! In the long term we’d like to shrink it again and at the very least I’m planning to paint it a gentle green and grow plants up it to soften the impact.

I wrote last time about starting to dig the first bed (where that tarpaulin was) and this week Roger has been cutting stout hazel poles from the hedge to create a rustic trellis-type structure along the back of it; covered in climbers, it should help to screen the shed even more and give a sense of height and a colourful backdrop. I’ve made a bit of progress in digging the bed and plan to use some finer hazel poles to make support structures for sweet peas and the like; the rest will almost certainly be scattered with annual flower seeds for a cheap and cheerful whack of colour and insect heaven in this first season.

I’m very aware that in a perfect world, we would be creating all the planting spaces without digging but there are a couple of problems with that one. For starters, we would need vast amounts of cardboard, manure and compost which we just don’t have; also, the ground here has been mown for the last thirteen years with a heavy tractor like the kind used in town parks and has become horrendously compacted. I understand the whole no-dig thing, and after the initial preparation we will be using a minimal disturbance approach but I think there has to be an acceptance that just occasionally, digging is the right thing to do. In order to maintain a semblance of balance, though, (and not totally shred my permaculture credentials) we decided to start a second bed in the Flower Garden using the hügel principle; after all, there’s not so much of a rush to create immediate planting space there. Rather than the classic arched profile, this is much flatter – less German hügel, more Welsh twmp. I’m not quite sure what we’ve created, maybe an Anglo-French-hügel-lasagne-pancake bed, which sounds either like a delightful cultural co-operation or diabolical confusion, depending on your outlook! We started by breaking up a stack of rotten hazel poles that had been left leaning against a tree and used them to make the base.

Next, we added the chopped remains of a couple of sacrificial ornamental conifers; please don’t mourn for them, they were nasty things and we’ve already more than replaced everything we’ve removed with native species better suited to the ecosystem. A thick blanket of grass clippings and dead leaves went on next, and finally a covering of inverted turf. I’ve read a couple of interesting articles suggesting that if the final layers of compost and topsoil are in short supply, then it’s possible to just keep adding organic matter – like a slow-burn compost heap – and simply plant into deep pockets of compost in the first season. I’d decided this would be the best approach; we could find enough topsoil but as that would mean digging a very big hole, it would sort of defeat the object, and perhaps courgettes planted in plenty of that retrieved compost is a good plan for this summer. However . . . I would, of course, love to have a few flowers in there too, and it occurred to me that I might be able to sow at least part of the bed this summer thanks to our very active population of moles. I must confess, I have a bit of a soft spot for moles with their velvety coats and outrageous paws but I know I’m the only member of the household who feels that way, especially when the evidence of their activity sweeps across the entire garden like chains of volcanic islands. The soil they throw up is amazing stuff, however, and I reckoned that a few minutes spent with spade and barrow scraping off the hills (or ‘oonty tumps’ as they’re charmingly called in Shropshire dialect) might render a bit of topsoil for a corner of the bed. A few minutes? Try well over an hour! In the end, there was enough soil to cover a good quarter of the bed to a depth that will readily allow me to scatter annual seed. Scraping each hill, I whispered my thanks down into the darkness of those secret tunnels and encouraged the little diggories to keep up their good work; well, for the time being at least – I probably won’t be feeling the love quite so much when they’re ploughing up the onions.

To an outsider, what is going on in the garden at the moment might well seem a chaotic puzzle but eventually some sort of shape will emerge and I’m hoping that by summer, it will all look very different – even if it’s currently hard to imagine. Looking at the stark layout of the Potager with its different shaped beds, hügel mound and mown avenues, I’m reminded of one of those computer- simulated models of Avebury Ring or Stonehenge and wonder if we should be incorporating some standing stones somewhere?

From front right: potato patch, general patch, hügel bed, bonfire circle. From front left: soft fruit patch, polytunnel patch (covered).

On a slightly smaller geological scale, and certainly more Hansel and Gretel than Neolithic Man, Roger has used a bag of white mulching pebbles left by the previous occupants to mark paths through what we’re planning as a Woodland Edge. The hedge against the lane is in a poor state but the row of mature trees is lovely and adding native planting to create a mini woodland below them seems just the right thing to do. Like our other projects, it will take time, especially as we’re planning to raise a lot of plants from seed, but in the meantime I’m enjoying following those moonlit pebbles on night rambles around the garden, whilst surrounded by the urgently romantic calls of barn owls and tawnies; ah, spring is definitely in the night air!

So, back to digging and although it’s hard, repetitive work, the one blessing for us is that this is the first of seven gardens spanning 24 years where we haven’t been digging up piles of other people’s rubbish. Yes, the compost heap and bonfire patch were pretty disgusting, but elsewhere the soil is blissfully deep, rich and remarkably free of stones. It is also full of the biggest worms you can imagine; no exaggeration, I’ve seen smaller grass snakes – no wonder the moles are so happy. I’m working as gently as possible so as not to disturb them too much and remembering the last French garden we created just a stone’s throw from here; there, instead of beautiful worms, every forkful turned up rubbish, mostly huge pieces of black plastic silage wrap and baler twine that wrapped itself around our tools and was a complete nightmare to deal with. It seemed to take forever to clear and yet we ended up with a very productive patch buzzing with life and colour, and crammed with food and flowers, in a relatively short time.

Mayenne potager #1: fingers crossed the second will be as good.

I know we will manage the same here, I just need to be patient and keep on digging. When my aching back suggests it’s time for a break, it’s lovely simply to wander about and see how things are changing with the season, the fattening leaf buds and first fresh green burst of willow and hawthorn, the delicate haze of plum blossom, the busyness of bees and butterflies and territorial posturing of birds. I can stand in the garden and watch roe deer grazing in a neighbouring field, red squirrels scuttling about in the oak trees and skylarks singing high above me. It’s all truly wonderful but – simple soul that I am – I find myself drawn time and time again to the Shed Bed where the glossy green spears of garlic push a little higher each day. Here is the wonder of nature, the miracle of springtime, the joy of growing vegetables. Here is our food of the future . . . and that makes me very happy. 😊

Notes from a new garden

I’ve become so used to those soft southern winters that I’ve forgotten how it can go in more northern climes. The days lengthen, the birds find their voices again as they flit and flirt round the garden, tree buds noticeably thicken, sprinklings of sweet flowers open . . . it is so easy to believe that there is a delicious, longed-for, gentle hint of spring in the air. Cue nature, in its indomitable way, reminding me that winter is still very much here, sending several centimetres of snow blown in on a bitter north-easterly, the kind of wind that makes my eyes run and toes tingle within moments of stepping outside.

The snow is soft and powdery, turning readily to crunchy ice beneath my feet; the sullen grey skies of morning clear to the sharpest and most brittle of blues, the sun sparkles on the snow like dusted sugar. The landscape has been transformed and it is hard to believe we spent the previous few days beavering away in the garden.

When we lived in this area before, our neighbour Rolande was completely baffled as to why I wanted to work in the garden at this time of year. Growing vegetables is a local way of life but the approach is very different to our own: do nothing until mid-April, then rotavate the entire patch and plant everything at once – potatoes, carrots, onions, haricot beans and salad stuff, with the addition of some tomato plants a little later on. To be out in the cold weather, puttering about the patch was to her complete madness on my part and as for actually planting anything . . . what could possibly be going into the ground in February? Broad beans? Cattle feed! Parsnips? Horse fodder! Honestly, Rolande, they’re good food and really tasty. Bof! (As an aside, the year I decided to plant purple and white carrots as well as orange ones, she was horrified and declared them to be only fit for rabbits; the look on her face was second only to Roger’s when he discovered my precious gift of seeds from Finland contained 26 varieties of squash and I intended to plant them all . . . 😂). Back out in a chilly Mayenne garden, I’ve been thinking fondly about Rolande this week; she is one of the kindest and loveliest people I have ever known and one of these days, I shall cycle along the lanes to visit her. She introduced me to Rustica, a French gardening magazine which is packed with useful information and fascinating articles in a holistic approach that focuses on health and well-being as much as growing a beautiful garden. I love the way state-of-the-art science rubs shoulders happily with the lunar gardening calendar, it’s a wonderful eclectic mix and a very pleasant way to improve my French. I did smile to read that February is the time to be planting rose garlic; phew, that’s alright, then . . . just don’t tell the neighbours I’ve done it!

I’ve also been remembering how it was here that I cut my blogging teeth, starting seven years ago with what was, in effect, a garden diary; when it comes to jotting down what and when we’ve planted and harvested through any year I’m a hopeless case, so at least flicking back through a few blog posts is helpful. This is what we’ve been up to this week:

  • Planted rose garlic – 83 cloves
  • Sowed a row of parsnips ‘Demi-long de Guernesey’
  • Marked out main vegetable patch and space for tunnels
  • Started digging main vegetable patch
  • Put potatoes to chit in the cave – 50 ‘Charlotte’, 12 ‘Blue Danube’ and 10 ‘Mystery Spud’ (ones I’ve dug out of the garden, a waxy salad variety but beyond that, who knows?)
  • Lifted small grapevine and potted up to grow on terrace this year
  • Lifted several self-set ash saplings and relocated in hedge
  • Transplanted oak tree sapling and found perfect spot for pond!
  • Pulled brambles out of hedges
  • Cut down ‘arch’ and left brush as wildlife habitat
  • Replaced support for large grape vine
  • Cleared around soft fruit bushes

It seems somehow very apt that garlic was our first crop planted in this deep, fertile soil; it’s not enough to see us through a year of cooking but we have to be pragmatic in this first season; it will take time to prepare the size of growing area we need so we will have to curtail our planting habits a little. Still, it was a lovely thing to be doing, as well as sowing a row of parsnips which will be a staple next winter. What a difference a day made, though.

It probably sounds faintly ridiculous coming from a (lapsed) student of permaculture but I really struggle with garden design. It’s not because I lack ideas or don’t know what to do but I’ve always felt that gardens are more about evolution than creation. It takes time to get to know a new space, to grasp the essential factors such as aspect, sunshine and shade, prevailing wind, rainfall, topography, soil, resident wildlife and that unique mix of benefits and drawbacks that comes with every patch. Strictly speaking, what we should do is leave everything as it is for a year, sit on our hands and observe. Well, that’s not going to happen but there’s much truth in the old adage that fools rush in so it’s important to give ourselves time and let ideas develop and mature like a good cheese, rather than commit anything to paper at this stage. One of the features we are planning to add is a pond; they are very typical of the area and are one of the best wildlife habitats we could possibly create – I’ve been astonished at how many birds are drinking from our temporary water bath when there is a stream at the front of the house and a wealth of ponds nearby. What a special moment it was earlier this week to draw back the curtains and watch a huge hare taking an early morning drink from the pond across the lane; I could watch many wildlife documentaries with stunning photography from all around the world and yet nothing could beat the magic of that moment, the peace, simplicity and complete ‘naturalness’ of it. I smiled to realise I was holding my breath! So, we had come up with a rough idea of where to site our new pond but all that changed this week when we dug out a random oak sapling and relocated it in a hedge; we’ve had a lot of rainfall but as Roger lifted the spade from the hole, it became obvious our pond plan was in the wrong spot.

This sparked a happy half hour reconsidering our original ideas, because if we moved the pond, then the areas we’d pencilled in for the main vegetable garden and polytunnel would need changing. We love this kind of activity, pacing areas out this way and that, looking at everything from new angles, chewing the fat and considering a range of possibilites. What has transpired is that the area I had covered with tarpaulins for the beginnings of a veg patch will now be inside the tunnel, and the potager itself will shift towards the house and eventually form an L-shape. We stuck markers in the ground as a reminder, then Roger started the mammoth task of digging; of course, I would be happy to help but we currently only have one spade between us . . .

Not that I’ve been idle. With two of the existing patches prepared and ready for planting, I turned my attention to the last one. This is planted mainly with soft fruit bushes: a few currants, a couple of gooseberries and a pile of raspberries plus one or two as yet unknown. It’s a real bonus to inherit something like this but I think they are going to need a lot of love and attention as they are hardly in the the best of shape. The fact that so many of them are lichen-encrusted suggests they are growing somewhere that is too shady and damp (a quick squint at the surrounding bowl of tall trees confirms that one, even at this time of year) and also that they are lacking in vitality – in short, they are struggling. No surprise, really, when I counted twenty plants crammed into an area that scarcely amounts to four square metres and also clocked a rather bizarre pruning method which seems to have involved cutting out all the young vigorous growth and leaving old and dead stems behind. I’ve cleared the weeds from around them so we can give them a good feed of organic matter and assess exactly what we have as the season unfolds. What they really need is a designated spot, open and sunny with lots of space between them and we’re planning to give them just that as part of the main potager, where hopefully they will flourish.

The cutting back of healthy growth seems to have been a bit of a theme here and there is hardly a tree on the property that hasn’t had the chainsaw treatment; this isn’t pruning, coppicing or pollarding but simply the lopping of strong and healthy trunks and limbs, in many cases of very mature trees. It’s brutal and monstrous, and the damage that has been wrought in some cases makes me want to weep. Who thinks to cut the top out of a beautiful cherry?

Its neighbour hasn’t fared much better but at least stands some chance of survival.

As for this poor little apple (I think), what can I say?

Wanton destruction of living things is not something we’re prone to but some removal of plant material is going to be necessary in the first instance here; I console myself that we will – without question – plant far more trees, shrubs and other plants than those that have to go. In fact, the receipt of a generous ‘new home’ gift has us already planning to spend it on something special, an unusual fruit tree perhaps, to grace our new garden. That poor old cherry really has to go but our first job was to clear out the rubbish it is growing in, including an arched ‘entrance’ to the so-called Secret Garden. The entrance hadn’t been made by shaping or training plant growth but rather by pulling a conifer to horizontal then fixing it to the privet hedge beyond with a variety of devices; in short, it was a complete mess and impossibly low. We took the whole lot out and piled the brush under a hedge to rot down in its own time; it will be an excellent temporary wildlife habitat and the wrens were in there straight away! Removing it has let more light in and gives us the chance to sort the hedges out – it would be good to lay the hazel properly – and create a tidier entrance that doesn’t require limbo dancing. It also revealed just what a state that cherry tree is in. Time to look for a replacement, I think.

The arched entrance on the other side of the Secret Garden is in much better shape and high enough to walk under. The hedge to one side of it is an interesting mix of plants, including what looks to me like a long run of bachelor’s buttons (kerria japonica) which – if it flowers – should give a sunny splash of colour in spring. The whole hedge was being choked by brambles (they’ve even been laid deliberately as a hedge in another area of the garden which is a new concept for us) so I spent several hours pulling out what felt like miles of stems, and then several days picking thorns out of my fingers, despite wearing leather gloves. A patch of brambles in the right place is a hugely beneficial wildlife habitat and blackberries are always welcome but they do need to be contained at times. The hedge and arch look so much better without them, the stems standing tall again where they had been pulled down. I’m excited to see just what this will look like in leaf; several grey velvety seedpods suggest there is wisteria in the mix and that will be a wonderful floral treat indeed.

Discovering what is here is all part of gaining an understanding of the garden’s history and for me it’s as important as grasping those physical factors I wrote about earlier. There’s a rich and colourful story woven into this garden and like all good tales, it evokes a mixture of responses and emotions. We all have different ideas and tastes and that’s a very healthy thing, it’s what makes life and people interesting. I might hold strong opinions about what I do and don’t like in the garden but I’m always happy to debate them and to consider, appreciate and embrace alternative views. There are many plants here I wouldn’t have chosen for the garden myself, but they are a thread in that story that I’m not going to rush to unpick; let’s live with them for a while and see what transpires. On that note, I realise that there are people who would consider the structure below that had been built to support a grapevine to be an innovative, artistic and funky feature to have in the garden. The vine is mature and was dripping with black grapes when we first visited the property: no question that it is staying, but as for the structure? Mmm, we were not so much seeing ‘art’ as a pile of rusty metal, concrete blocks and a whole host of tangled mess holding it together.

Time for a makeover. We removed the entire structure and replaced it with a support running parallel to the hedge made from stout hazel poles and wires. It is only temporary as the hazel will rot eventually, but it will do the job until we can make something more permanent with better posts. There was a second vine nearby, much smaller and visibly struggling as it had been planted in the shade of a huge oak tree; we lifted it and potted it up as a temporary measure. It can spend the summer sunbathing outside the kitchen door and eventually we will find it a permanent home; like the soft fruit, I think the potager will be the perfect sun-drenched place for a few grapes.

Although I am keeping a fairly open and tolerant mind about what has gone before, there are some things that simply have to leave. I’ve written previously about the plague of solar lights and they’ve been joined in the recycling pile by various other bits and pieces, including a wealth of rusty metal containers minus their bottoms and several baskets so rotten I consigned them to the compost heap. Then there’s the plastic lion water feature (without water) stuffed ignominiously under the bay tree. I rescued that little patio rose it was harbouring but as for Aslan? No, no and no again.

Who needs lions when we have so much native wildlife to enjoy here? The blanket of snow has revealed another chapter of the garden’s story, one that usually remains hidden from us: the secret, nocturnal visitors. I’ve had a fascinating time following their tracks and discovering the favourite exit and entry points of those silent night-time ramblers and the paths they forge for themselves around the garden; I’ve been particularly amused by the fox pawprints perfectly stitched in a straight line but making a very deliberate detour to check out the compost heap!

There’s no doubt that we’re having a ‘real’ winter that feels every bit as glacial as the local weather forecast suggests. It’s all part and parcel of the natural turning of the year and brings its own kind of magic in a way. However . . . it’s a very long time since we were grappling with the chill of minus nine and I’ll cheerfully admit I shall be happy to see warmer weather any time it likes to arrive! 😉

New horizons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

50 shades of greenish

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

I am generally an optimist by nature. I much prefer to practise abundance living ~ celebrating all that I have ~ than following a scarcity mindset focusing on things that I lack; I would plump for gratitude over greed every time. I’m not saying for one moment that I live my life in permanent Pollyanna mode (heaven forbid!) but at times it’s all too easy to be dragged down by negativity and discomfort and so lose sight of the good, positive and hopeful aspects of a given situation. Take, for instance, our plan to go for a beach run and picnic one morning this week; it seemed like a brilliant idea, especially as we arrived there in 21 degrees of warm sunshine and the beach was completely empty. Withing twenty minutes, the rain forecast for much later in the afternoon had rolled in on the back of a howling gale and the temperature had dropped to 12 degrees. Yuk. Nothing daunted, Brave Sir Roger went powering off down the full four kilometres of sand in his indomitable style whilst I decided to run lengths up and down the same kilometre so as not to end up too far from the car; sitting in the dry and nursing a flask of hot coffee suddenly seemed like a much more comfortable (and sensible) thing to be doing!

Within seconds, I was soaked to the skin; the rain was coming at me horizontally like sharp needles and my shins were totally sand-blasted. Running into the wind was a nightmare, I felt like I was going backwards much of the time and with my trainers soaking up water like a sponge, my feet were literally squelching through every step. It was cold and wet and very, very horrible . . . and yet it was wonderful, too. Wonderful to be in such a beautiful wild place, wonderful to be able to move and stretch my body, wonderful to feel the gift of rain on my skin, to feel alive and laugh at my crazy, crazy self.

I ended my previous post sharing my hope of leaving a beautiful and thriving planet for my descendants to enjoy and in this, I must confess, I sometimes struggle to maintain a positive outlook. I am a passionate eco-warrior and I refuse to give up or be beaten, but sometimes looking at the current state of the world, it’s hard to be totally optimistic. Thankfully, I can find great encouragement and inspiration from a wide variety of other people; WordPress blogs, for example, are a great forum for this! For some time now, I have shared a private chat group with our two lovely daughters, Sarah and Vicky, and it has proved to be a valuable and positive support mechanism; we can share tips, bounce ideas off one another, post useful articles, links and photos, discuss our successes and failures, laugh, cry, rant and rave. We are three very different personalities but we are united in our common goals to live simply and sustainably, tread lightly on the earth and do everything in our power to secure a viable, vibrant and regenerative future for all life on the planet. We are also women of action rather than navel gazers so we have decided the time has come to join together, go forth and DO something!

From tiny acorns . . . Sarah and Vicky exploring the natural world with the help of little brother Sam. France, 1995.

Our plan is a very simple one: to share our ideas and activities with a wider audience using this blog and a Facebook page called 50 Shades of Greenish in the first instance (I have to say at this point, I’m not the world’s greatest social media fan but I also acknowledge the power of outreach using these platforms). Our main aim is to inspire and encourage. We don’t want to preach: why would we? There’s nothing worse than being told how you should be living your life by someone who thinks they know best. We don’t profess to be experts, either; we are still very much travellers on a journey, taking the road one step at a time and learning as we go. It’s not a new idea, of course; there are many, many people out there doing the same thing completely brilliantly but we see no harm in adding our own voices to the cause. After all, we’re not trying to sell anything and this isn’t a competition. We’re three small drops in the ocean but every drop helps, and whatever you might think about Greta Thunberg, she has proved to the world just how powerful even a single voice can be.

A new path and an exciting new journey for this particular drop in the ocean!

More than anything else, we want to acknowledge and celebrate the rich diversity of humankind and try to reach out to everyone and try to show how small, simple changes can make a huge difference. You don’t have to be a tree hugger or a vegetarian or live in a yurt; you don’t have to join a group or be on a committee or go on a protest march; you don’t have to own a bike or a garden fork or a sewing machine. Whilst there can be much value in all those things, what we want more than anything else is to try and challenge the belief that being ‘green’ instantly stuffs you into a pigeonhole. Growing our own organic vegetables is a wonderful thing to do and something all three of us enjoy immensely but it’s not for everyone and why should it be? If someone lacks the land, space, resources, time, skills, inclination, motivation or interest, then making them feel guilty or somehow inferior because they’re not picking their own kale or whatever is no way forward. Perhaps where urban life and culture predominate, the seeds of simple change are the most important ones to be sowing across the worldwide web of humanity.

It’s very exciting and I can’t wait to see where this takes us. If by sharing our experiences and ideas we can inspire and encourage others, then that will be a very wonderful thing and – like the girls playing in the water – I’m hoping that our tiny drops will send bigger ripples ever outwards. Let’s build a community! Please come and join us, get involved, share ideas, tips, musings . . . the more, the merrier. We’d love to have your company along the way! 😊

Find us here on Facebook.

Staying put

Four years ago this week, we walked out of a notary’s office in Luarca as the proud new owners of Casa Victorio, a rundown hovel and several outbuildings set in eight acres of Asturian mountain pasture and woodland. For us, it was the start of a new adventure and – in all honesty – a huge leap into the unknown. Unlike France, where we had lived previously, we weren’t very familiar with Spain or Spanish culture before moving here and the only Spanish we spoke had been snatched from a few weeks of basic evening classes. (My brain was so fried linguistically that I wrote Espagna on our change of address notifications, a word I’d completely made up by mixing Spanish and French. Of course, it should have been España. I’m glad to say my Spanish has improved hugely since then!) Our move could quite easily have been an unmitigated disaster. However, as with any major decision in our life, we had asked ourselves one question: what was the worse thing that could happen? This has always been our acid test and it’s far more encouraging and empowering than all those ‘what if . . ?’ worries. It’s so easy to let a multitude of unwarranted fears stop us from shrugging off the cosy stagnation of an existence in our comfort zone instead of grabbing the opportunity to do something different, to really live life to the full. I’m so glad we took the plunge. Our life here is wonderful; it is, as the locals would say, una vida muy rica, muy preciosa.

Smoke from the chimney, veggies in the garden, washing on the line . . . this is our home!
Casa Victorio

Why, then, have we recently been contemplating the idea of leaving and returning to the UK? What on earth were we thinking? Well, for starters, there’s Brexit. We are not naive; before coming here we carried out masses of research and did the sums many times over but sadly lacked a crystal ball to tell us what would happen in the UK referendum held just one month after we moved here in May 2016. I have never wanted to use my blog as a political platform and I have no intention of starting now but suffice to say, Brexit has brought us no joy and done us no favours; stripped of the privilege of EU citizenship, our future here is very uncertain and may be a reason to leave in a ‘jump before we’re possibly pushed’ sort of way. On reflection, though, it has actually become a reason to stay, to enjoy and honour that very privilege that allowed us to be here in the first place. There are about 1000 UK nationals living in Asturias, scattered through the principality with no obvious expat epicentre; certainly, we are the only Brits in the village but as such, we have been welcomed unreservedly by our Asturian neighbours. True, they probably find us a little ‘exotic’ and eccentric but as immigrants living in their community and country, we could not have been made more welcome. They are the friendliest and most open, honest, tolerant and generous people I have ever met. A walk or run in the locality is more an exercise in smiles, waves, greetings and conversation than anything else; one elderly chap who walks miles every morning always greets me with a hearty ‘¡Viva la inglesa!’ and gives me a high five. You cannot put a price on such moments. It’s all about cultural exchange, about friendship and acceptance and kindness and being downright human towards one another regardless of nationality, colour or creed. Why turn our backs on something so precious?

Our friendly village

Far more important than the forces of shady political ideology is the climate crisis and here we have a conundrum: if we are truly committed to doing everything we can to leave a viable planet for our children and grandchildren (which we are), then isn’t it hypocritical to be living somewhere that necessitates foreign travel if we are to spend time with them? Surely a return to the UK where we could in theory draw a line under all future trips abroad is one of the greatest gestures we could make? Well maybe, but on reflection it’s not that straightforward because it’s not just about the travelling and any balanced judgement needs to be far more holistic. I’ve written about the WWF Carbon Footprint Calculator before https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/#/; it’s a somewhat imperfect and basic tool but it is useful in giving an idea of how our carbon footprint measures up and revisiting it every few months can be helpful in tracking improvements. Currently, we are weighing in with 7.5 tonnes of carbon in the last twelve months: that’s 72% of (or 28% less than) the UK government’s 2020 target of 10.5 tonnes per household. I’m pretty pleased with that; obviously we’re not going to be complacent – there’s always room for improvement, after all – but the fact is, this measure includes a return flight to the UK. True, take that away and we’re down to 7.1 tonnes (68%) but my point is, it’s the rest of our lifestyle that makes the biggest impact on green living . . . and ironically, much of that is down to climate.

Winters here are mild; some mornings can be a bit chilly but on the whole we don’t need much heating in the house. Like all old buildings here, the thick stone walls are designed to retain warmth in colder weather and keep the house cool in summer (although it’s never so hot as to need air conditioning). When we renovated the house, insulation was a top priority and the upshot of that is that we can heat the whole house with a single wood-burning stove. We fitted a couple of electric radiators and a heated towel rail as back-up but apart from testing them when they were installed, we have never switched them on. There is no heating at all in our bedroom; we simply don’t need it. In the run of mild weather we’ve had since Christmas, on many days we have only lit the stove in the evening and that is ample time to warm the house through as well as cook dinner, heat water and dry or air washing if necessary. The logs come from our own wood and as such are what John Seymour described as the best form of solar heating. We burn no gas or oil; we do use electricity but our consumption is a fraction of the UK and Spanish household average (in our last bill, less than a third of the cost was consumption, the rest was standing charges, tax and the like). We could not easily live like this through a British winter.

Logs seasoning against the horreo wall; once dried, they will be stacked inside the stone shed.

Climate also plays a key role in our food provenance. We grow most of our own fruit and vegetables and every meal is based round what’s good in the garden. Other food we source as locally as possible and much of what we eat is produced in Asturias – which has a similar area to Wales but a third of the population – or other parts of Spain. The benign climate means we can grow sufficient vegetables all year round and there is no such thing as a ‘hungry gap’; how can there be when the autumn-planted peas are dripping with pods in February?!

The vegetable garden is never empty: we are currently harvesting kale, broccoli, cabbage, Florence fennel, chard, carrots, beetroot, celeriac, leeks, parsnips, mizuna, mustards, Chinese cabbage, pak choi, rocket, landcress, lamb’s lettuce and spring onions.

The carbon footprint calculator also flags us up as lousy consumers. Our normal monthly expenditure is zero for new clothes and shoes (don’t need any), restaurant and takeaway meals (don’t want any) and pets (don’t have any). We spend a minimal amount on grooming products (mainly toothpaste) as I make most of our toiletries and the ingredients are pennies, and we never buy new gadgets, furniture or other household stuff unless something is totally broken and beyond repair . . . and we actually need to replace it. We live on a very low income but still save money each month because we simply don’t spend it. I’m not condoning travel but we usually drive to the UK rather than fly and even if we make two road trips like that a year, our annual mileage hovers around the average mark because when we’re here, we barely use the car at all. If we can reduce that to a single trip, our footprint will shrink even more. All in all, we can live the simplest of lives here, doing our best for the planet in as many ways as possible. Why leave in a hurry?

So, with the decision made to stay put we have turned our thoughts to a wave of exciting new projects which should help to improve our patch further and reduce our carbon footprint even more. Our starting point was the orchard which in many ways is an underused resource. I’m still reading and enjoying Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual and I particularly like his emphasis on a balance between ‘earth care’ and ‘people care’ and the need for places to work well for everyone and everything that inhabits them. Where the orchard is concerned, there is certainly more space for planting trees and possibilities for improving habitats for wildlife but also the chance to make it a more enjoyable and attractive space for ourselves. We started at the farmers’ co-op, choosing two locally grown bare-rooted trees, a greengage ‘Reina Claudia’ and cherry ‘Picota.’ (We plan to plant more citrus trees, too, but as they are all pot-grown there is no great rush). Planting two trees shouldn’t have taken more than a few minutes but when Roger started to dig the second hole, an ominous clang of spade against metal suggested this wouldn’t be so easy. Buried in the bank was yet another metal bedstead. Good grief, is there no end to them?

Cue a whole afternoon of stripping the bank back to remove the offending article, then shoring it up with a stone wall to create a small planting terrace – far more work than anticipated but hopefully we will be blessed with a good crop of cherries after giving the tree all that love!

How lovely that the excavation work had to be paused briefly to relocate a fire salamander; what a vibrant reminder of the rich diversity of life with which we share this space and the responsibility we have towards caring for it.

The orchard is a peaceful spot with lovely views of the village and valley and delicious green shade under the walnut trees in summer but we seldom spend time there because the land is so steep and access is difficult. Roger dug several turf paths when we first moved here but they are constantly undermined by voles and the slopes are very slippery, especially if the grass is wet. Time, then, to really sort the access issue out once and for all by making more permanent paths and digging in flat stones to create steps.

The beginnings of a stone staircase.

One corner is a real mess to tackle, a pile of rocks on a steep slope smothered in brambles with no way through. I know brambles are brilliant for wildlife but as we leave huge tracts to scramble through the wood, we don’t feel too bad at knocking them back a bit in this area. Underneath, there is a honeysuckle binding the bank together and a smattering of wildflowers; our plan is to add more native flowers as well as a few cottage garden ones for colour, scent and insect food. The huge tree stumps and rotting logs can stay.

Where do we start?

Last year, we decided to leave a large area of the orchard grass uncut and we were really thrilled with the resulting meadow. This year, we are going to extend that by leaving another bank uncut; it means less work and a better wildlife habitat – definitely a win-win. There’s a garden seat there that desperately needs a makeover . . . and that’s an important job as I suspect it will be much used this summer! 🙂

The orchard meadow last June, full of colour. . .
. . . and life.

We have a tremendous crop of wild strawberries here every year but we’d never got round to planting larger varieties, mostly because it’s hard to find a spot where they would get plenty of sunshine without spreading like stink and being hammered by slugs and snails. The solution, we decided, was to lift them above ground so Roger has created a funky planter from bits of scrap timber and odds and ends of green and black paint; those tall legs remind me a bit of the tripods in War of the Worlds but I’m hoping the chances of fruit will be better than a million to one! It’s a great way to make use of vertical space and hopefully will keep the slimy ones away from the strawbs. We’ve filled it with bare-rooted plants and potted up the spares for hanging baskets. Mmm, get growing, you lovelies.

The ‘courtyard’ is a tricky area and how to turn it into a more attractive space has us scratching our heads for inspiration. There is a lot of concrete. It’s uneven, ugly and, in this humid climate, attracts a covering of moss which can be lethally slippery so we have to sweep it on a regular basis. It’s useful to be able to pull a vehicle into the space for loading and unloading but we never park the car there and really don’t need so much hard standing. We have a few ideas in the pipeline but whatever we do, it will be quite a task.

The wall area between the house and horreo is part of the courtyard problem; originally well-built from local stone, it has been ‘adapted’ by a previous owner (I’m being polite here, the actual word I would use to describe what they did is far ruder) by the addition of several horrendous concrete features, including a set of completely wonky steps and a totally unnecessary vent that always makes us think of a World War II pillbox. We’ve fiddled at the edges with paint and plants to try and soften the impact, but if we’re going to make it look truly lovely, we definitely need to do some more work.

The horreo itself needs a bit of TLC and at last we are planning to do something we’ve been talking about ever since we came here. The middle ‘layer’ between the stone shed and wooden granary is an area that is open to the fresh air but protected from wind and rain by high stone walls and shady in the summer. It would be the perfect place to sit and eat, either when it’s too wet to be outside or on those few very hot days in the summer when we’re seeking evening shade. There was an old kitchen table and chairs left here which we could install, we just need to do something about the floor which is decidedly dodgy and in places, more hole than wood.

Our list of things to do has over 30 items on it; we’ve prioritised them and made a start but I know from past experience we will add to it as quickly as we tick things off. Our plans range from fairly simple ideas such as extending the varieties of perennial vegetables and herbs we grow to demolishing and rebuilding the Garage From Hell, from siting a homemade nestbox for red squirrels to investigating solar power now that the so-called ‘sun tax’ has been abolished and our electricity provider is offering valuable help with installation and management of systems. There’s much to be done but we love to be busy and, most importantly, we love living here . . . so we’ll linger. A while longer living in paradise? That will be tough, then. 🙂

The first of the peach blossom is in bloom. Beautiful.

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!). 🙂

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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

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