Acting on principle

Change is in the air. It’s still summer, still shorts and sandals and bright blue skies and warm sunshine but there is a new softness to it all, a smudging at the edges of each day which hints at seasonal change. Mornings, creeping in a little later now, are fresh and beautiful with surfaces flaunting mosaics of dew and whispers of mist threading the valley. The swallows are still here, swooping and spiralling on practised wings, but their days in our skies are numbered. I shall miss them once they’ve gone, as I always do, but there is sweet solace in the robin’s autumnal song, serenading me as I eat my al fresco breakfast.

September brings us beautiful mornings . . .

I love these quiet, treasured times outdoors, breathing deeply and watching nature as it goes about its business, and the importance and relevance of such observations brings me back to the topic of permaculture. Fear not, I have no intention of turning my blog into Permaculture Central. Why would I? It’s just one philosophy, a single strand in my life which is woven from many colourful threads, all of which I love to include in my ramblings and musings. However, I’m hoping that readers will forgive me just this once for indulging in a sequel to my last post where I announced that I had embarked on the year-long #free permaculture course.

. . . and mellow afternoons . . .

Week 4 and I’m still going strong. 🙂 I am no stranger to distance learning or life as a mature student, having studied for both a degree and PGCE through the Open University whilst caring for our young children at home; I was very grateful for the opportunity to achieve a professional qualification without sacrificing our precious family life or missing those priceless early years with our little ones. I’m not pretending it was easy (it most certainly wasn’t) but I believe the rigorous mental stimulation made me a better mum and I know for sure that being a mum made me a far better teacher. This course is a very different beast: there are no deadlines for written assignments or exams, no requirement to follow the structure and no time pressure to finish yet it is such an in-depth, resource-rich course that I find myself going off in all sorts of fascinating directions. If I manage to finish in 52 weeks it will be nothing short of a miracle!

Sun-warmed Japanese quince are currently perfuming the garden with their gorgeous scent; they’ve developed some particularly rosy hues this year.

The only drawback of all this study is that it leaves less time for other things and that, of course, includes blogging. To mitigate against this a little (and to be super efficient at the same time), I am planning to combine the two at least occasionally where it seems appropriate; after all, much of what I’m studying in the world of permaculture is the type of thing I write about anyway. This week, I’m examining the principles of permaculture which includes a ‘hands on’ activity of making flashcards as an aide memoire and ~ since my artistic skills with pencil and paint are laughable and I’m leaving the digital artwork until I reach the actual design stage (let’s face it, that will be more of a vertical rockface than a steep learning curve) ~ I’ve decided to use the medium of blog. I have lots of photos and I’m comfortable with writing so in a way I’m hoping this little exercise will give me the opportunity to consider not only how Roger and I are already applying these principles in our daily life but also the areas where we can make changes and improvements.

Jerusalam artichoke flowers are making a colourful splash on the terraces and buzz with insect life.

One thing I have learned this week is that there are as many sets of permaculture principles as there are permaculturists, but for my ‘flashcard’ exercise I’ve decided to use David Holmgren’s circle of twelve principles, partly because, as the co-founder of permaculture, I feel he knows a thing or two but also because they are the ones I was familiar with before embarking on the course. For each principle, I will share a few ideas ~ in particular, those aspects which I think we have already embraced in our lives, bearing in mind permaculture is an holistic approach which spirals outwards far beyond gardening ~ and then choose one photo (mmm, that’s the tricky part) to illustrate. I’d like to underline the fact that this is not in any way meant to be a lesson or expert discourse, rather it’s just the brief notes and thoughts of an enthusiastic student on a voyage of discovery ~ and if I’ve made mistakes, it’s because I’m only one thirteenth of the way through! 🙂

The squash harvest looms . . . here come some of this year’s home-bred mongrels.

Observe and interact

All permaculture designs begin with reading the landscape, not just the topography and climatic factors but the behaviour of animals and plants, too, and the changes that occur through the cycle of the seasons or the movements between locations. Ideally, a whole year’s worth of observation should be carried out before making any changes. Everything is considered from an holistic point of view and careful observation allows us to mimic nature in ways that benefit all elements within a system. For us, this can mean spending quiet times in the natural world as we tend our patch, studying how plants in the garden respond to different situations, harvesting produce and walking through the meadows and woodland, foraging for wild foods and medicinal plants or watching the bubbles form in our sourdough starter.

Our verbena bonariensis ‘hedge’ is full of hummingbird hawk-moths at the moment; they are fascinating to watch ~ and yes, they really do hum!

Catch and store energy

Storing and using surplus energy, food and resources is an essential part of permaculture and a key tool in becoming more automonous, self-sufficient and self-reliant. For us, this entails planting and harvesting woodland for fuel, storing nuts and good ‘keepers’ like squash, drying, freezing and making preserves, capturing the rainwater that falls on our roof, growing perennial vegetables, maintaining fertile soil and saving seeds. The principle can also include areas like learning skills from other people; for instance, I would like to be taught how to make baskets and then grow some willow just for that purpose.

Freezing, drying, bottling, pickling, fermenting and making jams, jellies and chutneys all help us store energy from our yield for future use.

Obtain a yield

Something I hadn’t really considered in any depth before this week is how living a home-based lifestyle as we do helps us to realise a much greater all-round yield from our most expensive asset (our house and land) than under the social norms of modern society where much time is spent away from the home working, studying, shopping, socialising and the rest. It’s certainly food for thought. Yield refers to all harvests and includes those foods we can forage from the wild (which this year, for the first time ever, has included blackberries from our hedges). Planning for a harvest is important, both to ensure we don’t go hungry and also that any surplus is used wisely and doesn’t become ‘pollution.’ Careful management can result in very high yields from very small spaces which is why permaculture can be so successful in tiny gardens. For us, it means drawing up and adjusting a planting calendar each year, sowing seeds throughout the year for successions of crops and saving some for next season, increasing the diversity of foods we grow (and including perennial plants among them), experimenting with new food crops and ways of using them, swapping surplus and giving ample time to harvesting and processing. Every meal we eat starts with what’s ready in the garden (or orchard, field or hedgrows).

This week’s breakfast straight from the garden: melon, figs and strawberries.

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

I find this an interesting principle, one that in many ways is based on discouraging inappropriate behaviour in all elements of a design. For us ~ the human element ~ that means a commitment to living simply, treading lightly on the earth, wasting nothing, being resilient and self-reliant, working with and caring for nature and basing our interactions on co-operation and peaceful negotiation. In the garden, it encompasses ideas such as plant guilds where plants are chosen and sited together in order to ‘help’ one another; for instance, we plant lettuce in the shade of taller, long-maturing crops, nasturtiums as a sacrificial crop amongst brassicas and comfrey as a companion plant to asparagus. Green manures help to reduce weeding and although some management and culling of plants is necessary, we try to develop a garden of self-reliant, self-reproducing plants as much as possible. Accepting feedback from nature entails asking ourselves what works (and what doesn’t!) and adjusting our approach accordingly.

It took four summers of failure and experimentation before listening to nature’s feedback led to our first bumper crop of blight-free tomatoes.

Use and value renewable resources and services

This is a principle that we are constantly working on, increasing our use of renewable resources and reducing our reliance on bought commodities and fossil fuels wherever possible. This includes using sunshine and wind to dry our laundry, either outside or in the barn, or the heat rising from the woodstove during wet, winter weather. We also use the same heat sources to dry foods for storage. Our woodland supplies us with fuel for heating the entire house (we use fallen wood and coppicing as much as possible) as well as cooking and heating water for drinks, washing dishes and washing ourselves during the cooler months; it is also a source of useful materials for practical activities such as replacing fence posts or staking young trees. We capture rainwater from the roof in a butt placed close to the polytunnel and turn all biodegradable ‘waste’ into compost, which we use to feed the soil along with manure from the local farm. We use plant materials in various ways, including for making herbal medicines and toiletries, natural cleaning materials and disinfectant and producing natural dyes. Spinning sheep’s fleece provides a ready stock of skeins for making new socks, hats and gloves when needed.

Washing drying in our wind-powered solar dryer!

Produce no waste

This principle asks us to adopt frugality as a positive lifestyle choice (in my opinion and experience, that doesn’t mean being tight-fisted, doing without or feeling ‘poor’ ~ far from it, in fact) and once again, to walk lightly on the earth. Closing as many loops as possible is an important goal and the way that we use wood, water and compost here goes a long way down that route although a compost toilet would be a big winner! The seemingly ever growing list of Rs ~ rethink, redesign, refuse, reduce, repair, reuse, repurpose, recycle ~ are central to the principle and an acknowledgement that recycling is the absolute last resort is vital. I would argue that there is much creativity to be found in working backwards through the list and tapping into waste streams! Caring for what we already have is also key, so it’s important to develop and use skills for maintainenance and repair, as well as considering ways in which we can use other people’s waste. We avoid waste through doing things ourselves whenever we can, composting, making things from scraps, meal planning, preserving surplus food (mostly in reusable / repurposed containers), sharing surplus, maintaining and repairing things (I’ve just patched a 16 year-old pair of jeans), living to daylight hours (why waste hours of electricity to light a dark house?), showering or basin washing and combining reasons for car trips. We have been working towards zero waste for some time but packaging still remains a serious problem.

Putting ‘waste’ to good use: walnut shells, wood shavings, twiggy sticks and marjoram prunings fuelled an evening barbecue this week.

Design from patterns to details

Permaculture is not simply a list of elements. We might have an organic garden, use renewable energy sources, ride our bikes and drink herbal tea but that doesn’t make a permaculture; the crux of the matter is the way those elements are linked in a flow, the patterns and relationships between them ~ and that’s where the ‘design’ bit comes in. This principle marks a switch from the previous ‘bottom up’ perspective to a more overarching view of systems as a whole. Nature is full of patterns and these can be used to inform good design in structure, time and process, starting from a wide-angle view of the overall pattern and then zooming in to the fine details. Once again, it’s not just all about gardens; when we were planning and implementing the renovation of our house here, the design started with a consideration of pattern, in particular the natural patterns and flows of our daily life and activities within the home. Our garden layouts, our use of polyculture and plant stacking, our (until now unconscious!) use of zones and sectors and various handicraft activities all reflect this principle in action.

I see the webs and industry of spiders in the garden reflected in my spinning wheel.

Integrate rather than segregate

This principle is about engaging the whole system, choosing elements that perform more than one function and functions that are supported by many elements. So for instance, the walnut tree I focused on in my last post performs many functions: releases oxygen, absorbs carbon dioxide, absorbs and releases water, creates structure in the landscape, acts as a windbreak, provides habitats, casts shade, produces wood for fuel and practical activities, produces nuts for food, produces leaves for mulch, compost and natural dyes . . . yet I could name many different plants or elements within our patch that also perform those same functions. It’s all about relationships and once again, practising polyculture, sowing green manures and using plant guilds is a good example of what we are already doing. Turning a ‘dead’ area of the garden into a small pond and wildlife habitat has led to an increase in our frog, toad and grass snake populations which in turn helps with pest control. This principle works at a community level, too; a quiet lane runs through our property and the blue seat we placed in the shade of a fig tree is there for all to use, a welcome resting place for passersby after the steep climb or simply a peaceful spot to sit, relax, contemplate, enjoy the flowers or chat.

Polyculture in practice: our garden is crammed with many different species and varieties, both plant and animal.

Use slow and small solutions

Small-scale, intensive solutions can produce both greater yields and diversity and underpin the goal of self-reliance, as well as being a far more efficient way of getting things done ~ I love the way that permaculture values hammock time! Doing things slowly gives us the time to observe, learn, enjoy, improve and relax, and is surely a welcome and healthy antidote to the rush and bustle of modern life stuffed as it is with fast travel, fast food and fast fashion, disposable commodities, social media and instant gratification. Making our own sourdough bread and yogurt, preserving, pickling and fermenting foods, foraging, collecting stone for building, coppicing wood, collecting, chopping and seasoning logs, making compost and comfrey fertiliser, using well-rotted manure, growing dye plants, seed saving, spinning, dyeing, knitting and crochet, making birthday cards and gifts and walking and cycling are just some of the ways we do things slow-time here. Preparing all our meals from scratch together is a real biggie and I’d argue that where ‘Slow Food’ is concerned, you can’t get much slower than starting with planting a few seeds! I think a good example of a small-scale solution would be solving the strawberry problem. Slugs and snails tend to thrive in the humid climate here and we knew that protecting a strawberry crop planted in the ground would be nigh on impossible. The solution? Build a trough from scraps of timber, raised high on stilts to prevent the slimy ones reaching the plants. Outcome? An ongoing, bumper crop of delicious, juicy, unblemished, slime-free strawbs!

It’s hard work in these mountains, but we are increasingly choosing to ride our bikes instead of using the car whenever possible.

Use and value diversity

Striving for diversity ~ biological, ecological and cultural ~ makes a lot of sense to me; there is much wisdom in the warning not to put all your eggs in one basket, and again having choices and back up plans (ideally for other back up plans!) gets us a long way down the path to automony, resilience and self-reliance. On our patch, we encourage and extend diversity through polyculture, exploring new plant species and varieties, seeking and using wild foods, seed saving (particularly open-pollinated and heirloom varieties), creating dishes and menus from the choice of home-produced foods we have and creating and encouraging mini-ecosystems. We value cultural diversity, too; I’ve written many times about the privilege and mind-broadening experience of living and learning in different cultures and countries. Sharing our space with neighbours and friends of different nationalities is a hugely pleasurable and enriching thing to do and our life reflects many ideas and approaches we have learned from other cultures. Diversity extends to structures, too: here, the house offers us shelter and warmth (and obviously somewhere to wash, sleep, cook and relax); the underhouse barn traditionally provided accommodation for animals but now acts as a utility and storage area; the barn gives us a workshop and tool store, an area for drying washing on rainy days and a useful space for indoor exercise; the polytunnel allows us to trap solar energy and extend the growing season; finally, the horreo in itself is a wondefully diverse structure, the perfect embodiment of ‘one element, many functions.’

The horreo provides a convenient stone log shed, a shaded outdoor area for sitting or doing yoga, a wooden balcony for drying foods and a dry, rodent-free food store. (Also, a location for siting a television aerial it seems, but that had nothing to do with us!)

Use edges and value the marginal

Physical edges ~ for instance, where fresh water joins salt water in an estuary or where forest meets field ~ tend to be fertile, dynamic places with much to offer. In permaculture design, valuing edges and marginal places (and ideas?) is a key principle that reminds us not to overlook or forget about such areas. Here we try to use edges as multi-functional elements, such as growing plants up fences necessary to keep wild boar out of the garden or letting wilder plants such as apple mint ramble along the bottom of them; dry stone walls built to create terraces have proved to be excellent habitats for lizards and favourite spots for useful and edible self-setters to appear; making wavy path edges by reusing old curved terracotta tiles has created mini ‘keyholes’ where herbs and flowers thrive. Beyond the garden, the margins offer us good forage of wild foods as well as a diversity of habitats for other species. By planting a wealth of flowers and herbs at the margins of our patch along the sides of the lane, we share our edges with others in the community.

Foods gathered from the margins of our patch.

Creatively use and respond to change

Change can seem frustrating, worrying, unwanted and threatening but it’s the only constant in life and being able to respond to it in a creative way not only builds resilience but can be a very uplifting experience. Flexibility creates durability and is essential if we are to pursue a lifestyle of sustainability and regeneration, now and in the future. Permaculturists often state that ‘the problem is the solution’, as illustrated by Bill Mollison (the other co-founder) and his observation that there is no such thing as a slug problem, rather a duck deficiency. This principle, therefore, is all about making changes to our own habits as well as responding positively to the unexpected. Certainly, choosing to move from ‘mainstream’ living to the way we now live here, making important choices about things like food, travel, energy and shopping, trying new ideas such as growing and eating different foods, adopting new gardening practices, making soap and toiletries rather than buying them, planting trees for the future and adjusting our lifestyles to try and help tackle the problems of the climate crisis are all ways we have embraced change. The ongoing ban of growing potatoes in our region of Asturias, now in its third season, has forced us to think creatively: no potatoes, now what? The solution has been to grow more starchy vegetables that we can use in their place ~ squash, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and, for the first time this year, oca. It’s too early to try the oca, but I can happily report that the other three at least make fabulous chips!

Planted for the (warmer?) future: our little orange tree is at last bearing fruit.

Phew! So much to take on board and of course, all these principles are part of a whole system revolving around the triad of permaculture ethics: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. I’m quietly surprised at how much we are already doing without having realised it was a valid part of the permaculture concept, but of course there is plenty more to be done. Reflecting on what I’ve written, I can see that there are some very pertinent elements that would help us to move forward including solar panels for hot water and electricity, a compost toilet for humanure, going back to keeping chickens, ducks and bees as we have in the past, learning and using new handicrafts and skills, involving ourselves in community projects with like-minded people, finding our ‘tribe’ and thinking of ways to share our space. I can’t promise that we’ll ever crack it completely or achieve the full interconnection and flow of a true permaculture . . . but I’m inspired to give it a go and at the very least, it’s keeping me out of mischief! 🙂

. . . and stunning sunsets, too.

Contrasts

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?

John Steinbeck

The rain came. After a day of humidity so high we could almost lick the moisture from the air, a storm broke and water fell on the parched garden. A brief respite the next morning meant I could take my breakfast outside as usual and feel the tantalising difference in the air; the sky was bruised and turbulent, swollen with the promise of more rain to come (several hours’ worth, as it turned out), but beneath it there was a bright freshness to the garden. It felt as though everything had let out a huge sigh, a deep, delicious exhalation of relief; plants had shaken off the dust, lifted their heads and stretched limbs upwards again. After many days of langourous lethargy, there was energy once more, a new optimism embracing the will to go on.

Clouds were forming in the valley, rising and looping from the woods like plumes of shape-shifting dragon’s breath; no matter how many times I watch this happening, it never fails to feel magical.

I love the change the rainy weather brings, the stark contrast and different feel to those cloudless, sunlit mornings. The water paints everything in deeper hues, so that beneath my feet the chestnut leaves, dropped in drought, shone like scales of burnished copper against the green. It’s a while since I’ve needed to wear wellies, too!

The leafy canopy so slick with rain, all shining and drippy, and the froth of wild carrot both had a palpably altered air seen against duller skies.

Lizards ~ those irrepressible hedonists ~ are two a penny here, scuttling about in busy flurries or simply sitting and soaking up the sunshine. The rain, however, brought out a more shadowy character, mooching across the yard with an exaggerated swagger. Fire salamanders are curious creatures, secretive, hidden amphibians that emerge under the cover of darkness to hunt . . . unless it’s raining, when they are happy to endure the daylight, too. They are poisonous and can be incredibly long-lived (almost as old as me, in fact): a small animal worthy of the greatest respect.

While so many things in the garden welcomed the rain, it wasn’t all good news. I love to grow sunflowers but have to admit it is nothing but a struggle here; the seedlings are usually decimated by slugs and snails, although this year most of the seeds were eaten by mice before they even had the chance to germinate. The survivors grow tall and top heavy and that is often ~ quite literally ~ their downfall; it’s impossible for them to put down deep roots on our slopes and any hint of strong winds or heavy rain can send them toppling over like fallen giants.

Of the three beauties flowering, two were lost and a plant in heavy bud lost its head; it’s an unwanted change but all part of gardening life and at least there is still one stunning plant for the bees to enjoy. I’m enjoying the salvaged flowers on the kitchen table, too, and the chance to study their intricate structures and fascinating beauty close up. It’s a vivid reminder of the pleasure there is to be found in small things.

The winds of change have blown through the vegetable patch this week, dancing to the steady rhythm of the seasons and bringing subtle contrasts of colour and flavour in their wake. We have moved from purple to green beans, cherry to plum tomatoes, from spearmint to apple mint, from sweet peas to sunflowers. The carrots and calabrese are finished, the aubergines and Asturian beans begun, the melons and squash whisper in the wings. Where onions have been lifted, cabbages are planted. The benign climate gives us permission to keep on sowing and nature shows us how: amongst the young spring onions and lettuce plants, self-set rocket, land cress and succulent purslane seedlings proliferate, with their promise of tasty salads for weeks to come.

Our meals begin with what is good in the garden; there is such choice and abundance now, we barely need anything else. What a blessing!

Further afield, and regular readers will know that one of the things we love to do is walk. It’s always exciting to explore new routes but I love to revisit old ones, too, especially to map the changes through the year. Not wanting to stray too far from home this week (the combination of holiday season and a public holiday making everything a bit busy out there), we opted to go back to the Ruta Vueltas del Gato. This is a circular walk of roughly 13 kilometres / 8 miles through a beautiful and changing landscape which I first wrote about in an earlier post; having only done it in winter, I was keen to visit again now and hear its summer song. Well, certainly we were going to be walking under a very different sky this time!

December
August

The trail leads across what feels like a wide expanse of moorland; it is in fact a large area of former eucalyptus forest that is being regenerated under a managed scheme that is pretty much letting nature take its course. It was much easier to appreciate how things are developing in the height of summer growth compared to the bare bones of winter.

December
August

For me, there was a tremendous sense of the land being healed here, of a brave new ecosystem and raft of life emerging from the ashes of monoculture. I can’t begin to describe the butterflies any more than I could capture them with the camera; there were literally clouds and clouds of them, like confetti in so many sizes and colours. Tiny blues rose from the path with every step we took while others shimmered above the undergrowth like a heat haze. The insect life in general was stunning, the heather and gorse alive with their activity and noise.

There are many, many reasons why I love birch trees, one of which is their pioneer spirit: give them a patch of land and they will be there in no time. Beneath the protective layer of shrubby undergrowth, shiny new tree seedlings were emerging, the birch most definitely leading the charge . . . and when they are given permission to reach for the skies, what beautiful trees they make.

There were other, more unexpected treasures to be discovered, too.

From this wide and open country, the path begins its long and sinuous descent to the bottom of a steep-sided gorge; it’s not called the ‘Cat Bends’ for nothing! It’s a difficult path, littered with boulders and deep gullies that make walking difficult. I must admit, I found it much easier under foot in the drier conditions of summer than the slipperiness of winter, so much so that I was even able to lift my eyes from the path and drink in the view.

That said, summer brings its own problems, it seems . . . so much growth in places, the path literally disappeared. Roger is in front of me somewhere, honest.

In winter, the mountainsides had seemed somehow metallic, the trees bare in silver and pewter or clinging to autumn colours in fiery flashes of copper and gold. Now, all was green upon green, lush and verdant in the higher light with not even the slightest hint of summer’s end in sight.

December
August

Down and down we went (170 metres in 500 metres of walking, to be precise), with the sound of the river growing ever louder until at last we caught the first glimpse of water through the trees.

Like our walk last week, we had arrived at a watersmeet, the place where the serene río Navelgas-Barcena meets the busy, chattering río Naraval before they continue their journey together as the beautiful río Esva. In December, the rivers had been full, stretching wide to their tree-flanked banks.

December

Now, everything was softer and slower. Sunlight strobed through the leaves and sparked off the water in scattered explosions, forming exquisite constellations of tiny diamonds on the surface. Pond skaters sought sunny patches, edging ever forwards against the current, whilst turquoise damsel flies flitted in twos and threes on indigo wings as dark as midnight.

This is a magical place: in contrast to all the movement and sound, the peace and serenity are so strong that they are almost tangible. You can breathe in pure, raw nature through every pore here. It is the sort of place I find hard to leave.

December
August

Leave, of course, we must ~ there were still many miles to go. There is no bridge across the río Naraval so wading is the only option. I love this sort of fun element to a walk but I have to say it’s a lot more enjoyable in summer temperatures!

December
August

The climb back to the top of the gorge is a long and steep one but the beauty of the woodland in its summer colours was a happy distraction from the hard work my legs were doing.

Emerging once more into open country, we could look back at where we had been walking earlier. That’s one of the things I love about a circular walk like this, the real sense of a journey, of distance travelled and landscape experienced and explored from different angles and perspectives. I loved the contrast of the dusty track punctuated with fresh puddles, too.

More contrasts in the colours and textures of the landscape again and reflecting on the pictures, I’m reminded of how every season holds its own unique forms of interest and beauty.

December
August

Just before our path turned into woodland once more, we had a sweeping view across the valley and the rocky path along which we’d walked. In the centre of the photo is a traditional feature of the Asturian landscape, a circular stone wall built to protect beehives from the attention of bears. It was a timely reminder of the fact that, although we were only a short drive from home and we could see farms and hamlets scattered across the landscape, it is very much still wilderness; humans might have been making their mark here for millennia but there remains an untamed, unfettered spirit of freedom to this land.

Home once more and we are likely to spend the rest of August pottering about at home while the holiday month runs its course. The weather remains changeable, playing a constantly fluctuating game of ‘Blue Sky, Grey Sky’ but I’m not complaining; it’s a little bit of variety and uncertainty, of changes and contrasts that surely makes life more interesting! 🙂

Woodlands and other wanderings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotlight on Ponga #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More meanderings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midsummer meanderings

With our holiday plans scuppered and the Asturian borders opened, along with the rest of Spain, to visitors once again (she says wearing very worried eyebrows) we decided this would be a good time to get out and do a few walks before the main tourist season takes off. Not that it’s ever really that busy here, but we are generally very spoilt in having trails and beaches pretty much to ourselves for most of the year and it’s all relative. Once August arrives, we are happy simply to stay at home.

Midsummer garden

Our first idea was to go back to walk the Ruta de las Xanas which we did with Sam and Adrienne back in January, but instead of risking a possible mugging by the huge mountain hound at the top of the gorge, we thought we would forgo the picnic and treat ourselves to lunch in the village bar ~ and as that is something we rarely do, it really would be a treat indeed. However, having checked online we discovered that it was closed for the festival of San Juan. Ah, okay.

We had a fantastic day out on the Ruta de las Xanas with Adrienne and Sam earlier this year.

Unlike in neighbouring Galicia, June 24th is not a public holiday in Asturias but obviously, as in this case, individuals can choose to mark it if they wish. In many parts of Spain, the night of the 23rd sees huge celebrations where people come together to dance, light bonfires on beaches and party throughout the night. Although as the Feast of Saint John it’s nominally a Christian festival, the celebrations themselves are based on much older pagan ways and share many similarities with other cultural acknowledgements of the summer solstice around the globe.

Time for Plan B and we decided to try a new walk in the neighbouring municipality of Tineo, one we’ve been meaning to do for some time now. As the crow flies, it’s not that far from home but there is no easy or direct route to the starting point so we suspected the journey on twisty mountain roads could end up being as interesting as the walk itself. It certainly was, and the scenery was spectacular, especially a valley filled with white, fluffy cloud; I hope I never become immune to natural beauty such as this.

There was no cloud at the start of our walk, just bright sunshine and a brilliant blue sky that suggested the day would be much hotter than forecast. The scenery was stunning, the trees all decked out in their full summer foliage and the dusky mountains rolling away into the distance.

The path soon turned down a greener than green lane which looked like it was going to develop into a really pleasant hike until some way down, we hit a major snag: the path was completely overgrown. Now, I realise that I might sound very hypocritical having recently moaned about the verges being cut (on which note, the morning’s journey through verges full of wild flowers and insect life had restored my faith a good deal, the strimming obsession seems to be very local to our valley)! One of the results of the COVID-19 situation is that many trails and picnic sites haven’t been maintained as they normally would have been and this left us with a problem. As country people we are prepared to wade through vegetation, squelch through mud, paddle across rivers or clamber over or under fallen trees, but waist-high nettles in shorts? Nope, not doing it . . . especially as it was early on in an eleven-kilometre circular walk and who knows what the rest might be like?

The path didn’t stay this clear for long!

Back to the car and on to Plan C. By this point of our days out, things often start to get a little needy and this one was no exception. Roger, who had been up since cockerel o’clock and run a half marathon distance before I’d even started my breakfast, was ready for his lunch; I, on the other hand, having lounged about drinking far too many mugs of tea and coffee was jiggling from foot to foot in need of a secluded spot for a ‘wild wee.’ We decided the best course of action was to head to nearby Navelgas and have our picnic in a shady woodland site next to the river. I love spots like these, for me they are pure Asturias ~ especially with the sound of cowbells ringing from the meadow beyond.

Navelgas is a lovely little town in a very pretty spot; in certain parts of the UK, it’s the sort of place that would be heaving with visitors, full of tea shops, arty boutiques and hiking and camping outlets. Instead, it’s full of friendly people quietly living their lives in the midst of beautiful scenery . . . and not a postcard or cream tea in sight!

It’s also the starting point for several good walks, some of which we’d already done so opting to try a new one, the Senda Verde de Brezo, we headed out of town along the river.

The route climbed steeply through woodland carpeted with wild strawberries, where the evocative spicy scent of warm pine took me straight back to the Canadian Rockies, albeit without the added excitiment of meeting a black bear around the corner!

There is something so special about woodland at this time of year, with the shafts of high sunlight piercing the leaf canopy and the air ringing with the incessant sound of birdsong. It was truly magical.

Further on, and we emerged from the trees to more open country and another path where nature was doing its own thing but thankfully not in a jungle of nettles this time. There were drifts of cheery yellow St John’s wort everywhere; very fitting given the date, I thought.

The path was still obviously quite passable but the issue with places like this is ticks, which seem to be especially bad this year. I find the best solution is to let another warm-blooded animal (preferably with hairy legs) go on ahead, after which it’s only fair to do some mutual tick-picking in true monkey grooming style!

On reaching the top of the climb, we stood and drank in the wide-reaching views. It never fails to amaze me how we can be looking at mountains higher than Ben Nevis and see farms or even whole village communities perched on top.

Someone with a lot of foresight had placed a bench there so we sat and enjoyed a drink of water, surrounded by the bustling busyness of bees and soporific fluttering of butterflies. Blimey, it was hot!

Given the heat and how much of the day it had taken us to reach this point, we decided not to go right to the end of the walk. Like not climbing to the top of a mountain, this sort of thing never bothers me because it’s about the journey, not the arriving; in fact, sometimes I think doing part of a set trail rather than the whole thing can be more pleasurable and rewarding, especially if a slower pace gives me the chance to really immerse myself and indulge my senses in the surroundings. Retracing our steps through the relative cool of the woodland, I lost myself in awe and wonder at the dancing silhouettes of ancient chestnut trees and the leafy elegance of it all.

Arriving back in Navelgas, we spent a little time looking at the beautiful seventeenth century panera de San Nicolás, draped with dried corn cobs in the traditional fashion. On our way back through the woods, we had collected some huge pine cones to add to the collection of natural ‘finds’ we are incoroporating into the enchanted garden part of our orchard. At first glance, there appeared to be a couple of giant carved ones beneath the panera . . .

. . . but on closer inspection, they turned out to be something quite different! Maybe we should have a go at carving one of these for the garden, too?

Home again, and what seemed to have begun as a bit of a scrappy, stop-go day had turned out to be very enjoyable in a gentle and satisfying way ~ no whizz-bang-pops, no great dramas or challenging paths, just a good walk in a beautiful spot and fabulous weather. Well, I say fabulous but nature had other ideas; no sooner were we home, than the blue sky disappeared in a tumult of storm clouds, the darkened valley became moody and atmospheric and the thunder rolled in. As the first fat spots of rain darkened the terrace slates, I reflected on the incredible range of midsummer skies we had experienced all in the space of one day. So fickle. So beautiful. So Asturias. 🙂

Just enough time to enjoy a glass of wine on the terrace before the heavens opened!

Every cloud . . .

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

Sheryl Crow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . and now.

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

. . . now it’s not even alive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freewheeling

All good things are wild and free.

Henry David Thoreau

For my bedtime reading this week I’ve been dipping into Henry David Thoreau’s Walden again; I don’t find it an easy read – in fact, if I’m brutally honest, I don’t even really enjoy it that much. The man is incredibly wordy (which I appreciate might sound a bit rich coming from me 🙂 ) and I do find some of the passages a bit heavy going; however, amongst all his lexical flourishes and literary asides, there are complete gems in the form of his observations of the natural world. Whether it be the calling of owls in the night, the fighting of black and red ants, the colour and behaviour of the fish in Walden Pond or the description of ice formation and snowmelt, his prose is exquisite. It came as no surprise to learn that other eminent naturalists including John Muir were inspired by Thoreau’s acute and perceptive observations.

It might seem like something of a jump from Massachusetts in 1846 to Asturias in 2020 but I’ve found myself reflecting on my reading whilst engaged in several activities through the week. Thoreau reasoned that the simpler life humans choose to lead, the less they need money and fewer hours in paid employment means the freedom to spend time on other things, connecting with nature being top of the list. I went out to pick a small bowlful of nasturtium seeds with the intention of pickling them in spiced vinegar to make a substitue for capers. It’s the sort of job that should have taken no more then ten minutes given that we have nasturtiums trailing everywhere and the plants are literally dripping with fat seeds that are easily harvested. In the days when I was working and raising a family, it’s the kind of thing that would be done in a flash because there was always something else to be moving on to but the joy of a simpler, quieter life now is that I can take as much time as I like. I can idle or daydream ~ or both. In fact, what happened is that I found myself completely absorbed in the busyness of honey bees working their way systematically through the jungle of nasturtium flowers, their pollen baskets so full they looked to be wearing harem pants in spicy shades of saffron, cinnibar and paprika.

We used to keep bees so it would be easy to become blasé about this kind of thing, having watched them returning to the hive laden with a spectrum of different pollens many, many times. The truth is, though, I never cease to be fascinated by their selfless, focused activity and I’m perfectly happy to spend time watching them again through fresh eyes. Actually, I love to watch bumble bees, too; they are in many ways the better pollinators, given that there are more species of them, they will fly in cooler temperatures and are faster and more efficient gatherers using ‘buzz pollination’ (vibrations that literally shake the pollen out) which enables them to loosen tightly-packed pollen and saves them from having to crawl into the depths of every flower. The honey bee, though is a specialist, fastidiously visiting only one kind of flower on every trip and spreading the news of a plentiful harvest on her return to the hive which is what makes them such an asset to fruit orchards and the like. They’ve certainly done us proud in the nasturtiums!

It’s not just the plentiful seed harvest, either; the beauty ~ literally and metaphorically ~ of growing open-pollinated varieties is that every year we find a wider range of colours and patterns amongst the flowers, which are currently ablaze in a stunning display of painted fiery tones.

Moving from my reading in English to Spanish and I am currently translating a news report about Alfredo Ojanguren, an Asturian professor of zoology in Oviedo University, whose research has led him to believe that being a ‘natural paradise’ helps to protect places like Asturias from pandemics and plagues ~ a very pertinent issue just at the moment. He argues that valuable, carefully-preserved ecosystems and a wide biodiversity have much to offer in maintaining the health and well-being of humanity. He uses the metaphor of a hen that lays golden eggs: if we ask for one egg a day, through sustainable exploitation of natural resources including the tourism which beautiful areas attract, then a healthy balance can be maintained between the needs of human beings and the welfare of the planet. Take three eggs a day and the precious hen is overloaded; at that point, we are all in serious trouble.

It’s a fascinating article and I was particularly struck with Professor Ojanguren’s observation that ecosystems are crucially important at every level; it’s natural that we tend to focus on such fragile and prominent areas as the Amazon rainforest, but in the grand scheme of things, the tiniest areas are equally important and deserving of our attention and care. We may not co-exist with exotic species in our garden but the life that thrives in the wild margins of our vegetable patch is essential to the welfare of the environment.

Further afield, and the current phase of easing lockdown restrictions has granted us the freedom to travel anywhere within Asturias whilst the borders remain firmly closed to incomers. With paths and trails re-opened, we are free to enjoy the paraíso natural once more so this week we decided to take our bikes back to the Senda del Oso (Bear Trail); the route is shaped like a capital Y and having cycled up the right-hand path from the fork last year, this time we decided to take the left turn and explore some new countryside ~ 22 miles (35 kilometres) of it, in fact.

Now, I am happy to confess that on a bike I am something of a liability for several reasons. For a start, I am very easily distracted and have an alarming tendency to weave and wobble about the road or slam on my brakes without warning in order to stop and look at something that has captured my attention, creating mayhem for anyone behind me (usually Roger, of course); for this reason, it is safest for everyone if I ride along at the back. Also, if there is going to be a mechanical drama you can bet your bottom dollar it will be my bike at the centre of things. Flat tyres, stuck gears, a wedged chain . . . you name it, I’ve had it to a point that my beloved engineer now always carries at the very least a puncture repair kit, pump and spanner in his rucksack whenever we venture out on two wheels together. Should I mention my issues with wearing a helmet? No matter how much I try to tame and flatten my hair, it is so thick and chaotic that my helmet fights me every step of the way, sticking up in ridiculous fashion like a rocket on a launch pad or necessitating my chin strap to be tightened to such a point where swallowing and breathing become very uncomfortable. Thankfully, on the Senda del Oso a helmet is only mandatory for under-16s so I don’t have to wear it, but I carry it anyway just in case (of what, I’m not sure 🙂 ).

Last but not least, I am an incredibly slow cyclist ~ honestly, sleeping things can move faster ~ and I know this can be very frustrating for others; the point is, though, if Roger wants to do a speedy, athletic sort of jaunt he can go out on his own whenever he likes but on days like this, there is no rush. If it takes us all day to ride the trail, so be it; it’s about spending a happy time together in the fresh air, moving slowly through a wondrous landscape and drinking in the beauty and enjoyment of it all.

I love this place, there is everything here that I adore about Asturias: soaring mountains, a dramatic river gorge, vast swathes of broadleaf forest, lush green meadows, higgeldy-piggeldy villages, cowbells, birdsong and that infinite canvas of green on green. Oh, and barely another soul, either.

When we walked along the coastpath a couple of weeks ago, we knew that we had missed the floral fireworks of early May but my goodness, we more than made up for that on this bike ride. The wildflowers were truly stunning, the verges like rich tapestries of colourful wonders completely a-buzz with the attention of insects. A tiny ecosystem, a monumental treasure: what a privilege to be able to share it, how vital that we care for it.

Yes, Mr Thoreau, all good things truly are wild and free ~ but please let us never lose sight of their immeasurable worth.

Sweet liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The flight of the bumblebee

Our valley is a tranquil spot at the best of times but in these unusual circumstances of minimal traffic on the roads and no planes overhead, it is exceptionally and blissfully peaceful. In The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk describes how in modern society, over 90% of the noise that surrounds us in our daily lives is man-made, yet for prehistoric peoples the opposite was true. Now I am not expecting to see a woolly mammoth come strolling down the lane anytine soon but – putting the current grave circumstances aside – how extraordinary it is to experience an environment overwhelmingly dominated by natural sounds.

Of course, there is the usual cacophony of cockerels and cowbells punctuated by short bursts of village activity; after all, despite most of Spanish society remaining in total lockdown, the farming and smallholding year must continue if starvation isn’t to be the next problem. Still, it is the wilder sounds that prevail with a crystal clarity, as though nature’s crackly radio has at last been fine-tuned to perfection. I am a willing audience.

The river snakes its way across the valley floor below us in a constant ripple of energy, bubbling and chattering over boulders as if it were still a youthful mountain stream, but now it is somehow amplified to a level that suggests the rush and drop of a weir or hidden waterfall where there is neither. Breezes susurrate and sigh across the mountainsides, stippling the light and ruffling the trees like a huge invisible hand pulled through soft, silvery grasses.

It is no surprise that the birds hold centre stage from dawn to dusk, their rousing symphony of harmony and counterpoint played out against the rhythmic ostinato of cuckoos and crickets. In this clear air there is a fresh magic to their music, startling surprises in the familiar like a bright new tapestry woven from old threads.

It’s not just their songs, either. How incredible to notice the rigid wingbeats of a crow flapping languorously overhead, the slick torpedo whoosh of a sparrowhawk perforating the air like a dart, the fragile sigh of a wren alighting on a tremulous twig. There’s nothing new about any of these sounds . . . but have I ever truly heard them before? By day, the stags’ guttural coughs echo across the meadows and at night, the tawny owls practise their haunting call-and-response under vaulted skies. There’s no missing those raucous renditions but who’d believe the soft patter of a lizard’s footsteps or the whispered rustle of a grass snake’s sinuous trajectory can truly be heard? Hush. Be still. We only have to listen.

The garden is alive with insects who play their part magnificently, too. I’ve recently read a report about the effects of climate change on bumblebee demographics and in particular, how a run of very warm summers here in Spain has seen populations pushed ever northwards to these green and mountainous regions. I am no biologist but I can certainly vouch for that: they are here in their thousands and the garden and meadows thrum constantly with their exuberant notes. I love them; they are so busy and yet so unfussy, zipping from place to place and feeding at whichever flower take their fancy. Nothing is too grand or too humble for their attention – weeds, garden blooms, vegetable flowers, whatever. Crimson clover is proving to be a huge success, its vibrant bottlebrush flowers are an irresistible bee magnet. The same is true of phacelia, another green manure plant which has self-set around the patch in pops and drifts of hazy mauve, bristling with the frenetic activity of bumbles, honey bees and solitary bees alike.

Something we have noted with delight and optimism is the increasing amount of wildlife drawn to our patch year on year, not only in terms of absolute numbers but in the range and variety of species, too. How exciting this week to see a carpenter bee joining the phacelia feeding frenzy; we had them in our garden in France but have never seen one here until now. I think the females are stunning creatures clad in their shiny black armour with wings of metallic bluey-purple, iridescent in the sunlight. They are bold and brash and very loud which, along with their habit of building nests by hollowing out wooden structures, apparently gets them a bad name; I was completely shocked at how many internet sites give information on how to destroy these so-called troublesome pests. How sad. At least here in our little haven (or as Mary Reynolds would call it, our ‘ark’), they are safe and welcome.

As I sit in the garden writing this on the laptop, I realise that it has been exactly six weeks since I last left our property. For 42 days I have been here without exception, watching spring unfold around me in a way never quite as before. It has been fascinating to observe the developments and events, not in steps or leaps but in the tiniest, barely perceptible shifts of change; it has almost seemed possible to watch leafbuds burst, blossoms unfurl, seeds germinate. What incredible changes have occurred in a relatively short time! Like a time-lapse film, the countryside around us has greened and filled to bursting, whilst the garden canvas has moved through an entire palette – from primroses, violets and tulips to alliums, poppies and roses – to arrive at the crazy, carefree carnival of rainbows I love so much.

Where flower gardening is concerned, I’ve given up – not for any negative reason, you understand, but because I am simply no longer needed. Having saved many things that were already here, planted perennials, sowed biennials, scattered annuals and buried bulbs in previous years, nature now does the work for me and the garden takes care of itself. We haven’t planted the new border where concrete used to be because it will plant itself in the coming months. How could I improve on the swathes of colour, here soft and billowy, there loud and shocking, that have organised their own unique compositions? Would I have thought to take crimson clover and yellow calendula then stitch them through with the dazzling magenta of vetch?

Could it have occurred to me that candy pink granny’s bonnets mingling tastefully with the glaucous blue of cerinthe and then shot through with the screaming fiery orange of nasturtiums might be something that would work? Would I sow candytuft under the grapevine, pansies among the onions, wallflowers between the peas? It’s completely outrageous and I love the whole wild, reckless, hedonistic jumble of nature’s creativity. Let’s just smile and revel in it. Why interfere?

Of course, we’ve already handed the reins over to nature in many, many areas of our patch, those margins and larger spaces left to go deliberately wild after a nudge in the right direction. We’ve recently been developing the orchard area, improving access so that we can wander up and down the steep slopes and spend more time enjoying it; how daft to have a seat there which we barely sat on! Having cleared the rougher areas, knocking back the brambles and applying a selective grass cutting regimen, it is wonderful to watch the whole space regenerating and taking on a new and tantalisingly beautiful aura.

The wildflowers that were already present have proliferated and new ones have appeared, so that beneath the fruit and nut trees – currently resplendent with fragrant blossoms or fat catkins – there are pretty carpets of scattered colour. The verges, too, are a tangle of wild beauty and a-buzz with the rapt attention of a myriad insects.

Have these past six weeks, so worrying and disruptive for much of humanity, brought positive things to the abundance of life we are so lucky to share our environment with? Could the hugely increased numbers and acrobatic energy of the swallows here be a result of a better journey northwards through cleaner air? Is the natural world in general feeling the benefit of fewer machines, less air pollution and less noise?

Has our almost constant presence outside diminished the inhibitions of the resident birds who no longer seem to notice us being here? There is currently a great tit sitting on a hanging basket close by, delicately plucking fibres from the sheep’s fleece I used as liners, without a care in the world; a few moments ago, a dunnock landed on the back of the chair opposite, its beak stuffed with moss, so close I could have reached out and stroked it. It made no rush to leave.

We have at least two more weeks of lockdown here and then, by all accounts, only a very slow lifting of restrictions to movement in small steps towards the ‘new normal.’ By then, I sincerely hope that the human situation will be improving rapidly but in the meantime, with a deep sense of gratitude I shall continue to delight in the beauties of the season and the enchantment of the bumblebees’ song.