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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