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.

Loving Lammas

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

Henry David Thoreau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E-value-ation

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

Irish proverb
(Com)passion flower

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

Simplicity

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

Nature

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

Compassion

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

Compassion

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

Compassion

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

Simplicity

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

Simplicity

Gratitude

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

Gratitude

Nature

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

Nature

Wonder

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

Wonder

Creativity

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

Creativity

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

Vitality

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

Vitality

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

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

Wonder

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

Vitality

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

Creativity

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

Gratitude

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

Practising for the supermarket . . .

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.

Cordial relations

Cordial: a sweet, fruit-flavoured drink. Originating from Middle English (‘belonging to the heart’), from medieval Latin cordialis, from Latin corcord- ‘heart’.

From time to time, I think it’s a good idea to stop and take stock of my life to see if there are things I could be doing better or differently, habits that could be dropped or new ideas pursued. Change is the only constant in life and I’m a firm believer in a little shake up now and again to keep things fresh and interesting. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about re-reading a favourite herbal and that inspired me to take a long, hard look at my current herb-growing status. Herbs have been a part of my gardening life for ever; in fact, if I were only allowed to grow a handful of plants, they would all be herbs. They are just have so many uses: culinary, medicinal, domestic, cosmetic, creative, aesthetic . . . and of course, many of them are fantastic for wildlife and suit the chaotic informal gardening style I prefer.

Rosemary and friend

Poring over my book (plus another couple of treasured herbals I naturally felt the need to consult), I realised that I’ve been guilty of complacency since moving here; happy that at last I’m able to grow varieties that I’ve previously struggled with, I’ve lost sight of the characters that are missing from the cast or the understudies waiting patiently in the wings that I continue to ignore. Time to go forth and make an inventory. Yippee ~ I do love a list! First, the herbs we have growing here and use on a regular basis. The items marked with an asterisk are ones which grow better here than in our previous gardens.

Flat-leaved parsley ~ volunteers appear all over the garden.

Herbs

  • Rosemary*
  • Sage*
  • Thyme (common and lemon)*
  • Mint (spearmint and apple mint)
  • Fennel
  • Dill*
  • Parsley *(flat-leaf)
  • Coriander*
  • Chives
  • Basil*
  • Comfrey
  • Lemon balm*
  • Lavender*
  • Hyssop*
  • Marjoram
  • Chervil
Thyme

Flowers:

  • Sweet violet
  • Pansies
  • Rose*
  • Primrose
  • Wild strawberries*
  • Pot marigold (calendula)*
  • Nasturtium*
  • Feverfew
Wild strawberry

Trees

  • Walnut*
  • Eucalyptus*
  • Bay*

Well, that didn’t seem a bad list until I realised how many old favourites are missing. As soon as we are able to visit a nursery or seed supplier, then I need to start gathering some new stars.

Wish list

  • Tarragon
  • Bergamot
  • Lemon verbena
  • Purple sage
  • Purple coneflower (echinacea)
  • Chamomile
  • Angelica
  • Peppermint
  • Salad burnet
  • Savory
  • Myrtle
  • Sweet cicely
Borage

Bergamot is one of my favourite plants and I’ve never been without it: how on earth have I let this happen? I struggled to grow lemon verbena until we lived in France where it revelled in the heat of a Mayennais summer and made the best lemonade ever; I think it will be happy here in the Spanish sunshine. I’ve always failed with sweet cicely and purple coneflower but it’s time to try again. I’m conscious of limited growing space and I don’t want any more pots to water so it’s going to be a case of balance, careful planning and sensible choices. In the past, I’ve gone overboard with growing as many different mints as I could lay my mitts on and a wealth of fancy-flavoured basils but really, there’s no need. Variety, yes. Overkill, no.

Marjoram

This led me on to a scrappy little list of plants I’ve tried to grow here and failed, or species I have no intention of ever growing again.

Bits and pieces

  • Cumin and anise ~ sowed seed, nothing happened.
  • Lady’s mantle (alchemilla mollis) ~ another great favourite, it just won’t grow here. 😦
  • Soapwort ~ sowed seeds three times with no luck . . . but now I think I might be there having been gifted a slip of root (thanks, Sonja!).
  • Lovage ~ I find the flavour too overpowering. Give me celery leaves any day.
  • Santolina, artemesia and rue ~ silver-leaved herbs I’ve grown in the past as foils for more colourful things but the truth is, I don’t actually like any of them.
  • Tansy ~ yuk! Sorry, I know it’s quite a pretty thing and is supposed to be a great fly repellent but I can’t stand the smell, to my nose it is pure Eau de Dog Mess. There’s just no need for that in the garden.
Honeysuckle ~ so much kinder on the nose than tansy!

The jury is out on on catmint: what to do? It’s a herb I love, pretty and fuss-free, but the problem is the package that comes with it: the attention of cats hell-bent on hitting a feline high and trashing it in the process. We don’t have any cats ourselves but the neighbourhood boasts a raggle-taggle bunch of wanderers who drift through the garden and I’m not about to waste time and money feeding their drug-crazed habits. However . . . I have now discovered that it’s good at deterring flea beetle which is a real nuisance in the tunnel, so I’m wondering whether a couple of pots in there might be a plan. Would they be safe or am I courting trouble from desperate moggies trying to break in and steal a sneaky fix?

Calendula and sage

Finally, I turned to a list of herbs I should be making more use of. It’s interesting that most of them are considered to be weeds, which had me wondering a bit. At what point did plants that had been valued for thousands of years as food or for their therapeutic qualities fall from grace? Who decreed, ‘Thou shalt be a weed?’ Why have they become the target of derision and eradication when they have so much to offer? There is a wealth of goodness here and I believe they all have a certain beauty and charm, too ~ but that’s just me.

Wild things

  • Dandelion
  • Nettle
  • Chickweed
  • Self-heal
  • Cleavers
  • Shepherd’s purse
  • Red clover
  • Daisy
  • Honeysuckle
  • Passionflower – not ‘wild’ as such but one I know I could be using
Plantain

I didn’t know that crushed red clover flowers are an excellent treatment for bites and stings (useful, since mozzie season is upon us) or that you can sprinkle daisies onto salads or turn honeysuckle blooms into a cough syrup. It’s time to get a grip and start giving these modest little plants the attention and kudos they deserve.

Daisies, red clover and buttercups

On which note, I’ve made a start and without wishing to big myself up too much, I’m actually feeling quite proud. Here is the woman who just a short time ago wouldn’t touch herbal teas with a barge pole yet last week I found myself on a foraging mission which resulted in (drumroll, please) . . . fennel and goosegrass tea. Yes, goosegrass ~ or cleavers, sticky grass, bedstraw, beggar lice, bur head, catch weed, cling rascal, sticky weed, sticky willy, sticky bob, stickybud, bobby buttons, robin-run-the-hedge, stickyjack, scratchweed, coach tongue or whatever else you wish to call it.

How was it? Well, the honest answer is it probably wins more prizes for the abundance of names it has than flavour but it was very palatable in an earthy sort of way and I enjoyed it (truly!) hot and cold. The important thing is, it’s a great natural system ‘cleanser’ and spring tonic; the tea was fine and I’d happily drink it again but that said, I’d pass on eating goosegrass as a pulp which I have seen recommended. Slowly, slowly . . . it’s early days yet. Don’t want to rush these things.

Apple mint

I have been trying out a few other new things herb-wise in the kitchen; having a forest of self-set dill, I used a pile of it to turn a couple of plump local trout into gravlax and I’m deliberately letting some plants go to seed so I can use the heads to make pickled gherkins ~ we’re growing a little Spanish pepinillo this year just for that purpose.

Dill

The extra mild winter has left us with more nasturtiums than we can shake a stick at so I’ve picked their crunchy green seeds to make ‘poor man’s capers’ and I’m also planning to experiment with nasturtium flower butter and leaf pesto, and maybe even stuffing the bigger leaves to make a version of dolmades, one of my favourite Greek dishes. Top of my list, though, with the weather hot and summery was to have a go at making a herb cordial.

Nasturtium

Much as I enjoy experimenting with herbal teas, I felt slightly nervous at the idea of going one step further and attempting a cordial as we have something of a family history of disasters where homemade beverages are concerned. The most famous was Sam’s ginger beer, which started off innocently enough as one of those ‘plants’ in a jar that needs daily care and feeding ~ a bit like a hamster, but less smelly and more useful. The resultant ginger beer was decidedly good and an apparent all-round success . . . until a bottle of it exploded in spectacular fashion (think Grand Prix drivers and champagne here), spray-painting the entire kitchen and leaving several indelible works of abstract art spattered across the ceiling. Despite numerous coats of fresh paint, the marks were still there when we sold the house several years later; on reflection, maybe the hamster wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Spearmint

My own disaster was slightly less dramatic but equally as alarming. I set out to make a batch of elderflower cordial, something I’d made previously without any problems. Ah, that summery smell of muscadet flowers and lemons wafting through the kitchen. Wonderful! I don’t remember the exact circumstances but I think probably it was a hectic weekend sandwiched between two busy weeks, the elderflowers were at their best and I was impatient to get on with it; the problem was, I had no citric acid to act as a preservative. No problem, I thought, having a clever little lightbulb moment: I’ll freeze it in ice cube trays then everyone can help themselves to a portion from the freezer as and when they want. Blimey, that’s brilliant, I hear you say!

Double feverfew and nasturtiums

Well, it very much wasn’t brilliant and if I hadn’t been such a fool rushing in and had stopped for just a couple of seconds to think about it scientifically, I’d have realised it was never, ever going to work. There are hundreds of websites out there happily reassuring unsuspecting souls that elderflower cordial freezes like a dream. Please trust me on this one, my friends ~ it doesn’t! For ‘dream’, read ‘nightmare.’ The sugar content is far too high so that in the same way a sorbet is always slightly soft, it will never freeze solid.

Passionflower

Instead of handy little ice cube-shaped blocks to be popped out into a glass, I ended up with a pile of tacky slush; what’s more, it was a pile of tacky slush with a mind of its own which inexplicably travelled throughout the entire freezer (and we’re talking a big family-sized chest job here), coating absolutely everything in a fine film of sticky gunk. How this happened, I will never know but some dark and mysterious forces were at work once the lid was down. The business of visiting the freezer for, say, a bag of chicken stock or a loaf of bread and ending up with hands covered in a persistent, sugary ectoplasm became very tiresome, very quickly. It took months to eradicate the stuff. Never again!

Coriander flourishes outside all year round.

Anyway, I digress. It’s a given that things don’t always go right in life and that’s no reason to give up so, nothing daunted, I embarked on Project Herb Cordial, vowing that this time I would take time and do it properly. First, I considered a wealth of flavour combinations and tried them out as both hot and chilled teas, in the end plumping for lemon balm and rosemary which struck my tastebuds as a perfect pairing. Then, I researched zillions of recipes and methods ~ everything from adding sugar to a simple infusion to steeping piles of leaves, fruits and spices in a clay pot for several days to dancing round a cauldron in the garden under a full moon on the third Tuesday of the month. Okay, I may be exaggerating slightly with the last one but honestly, the more I read the more mind-boggling it became. Truly, how hard could this be?

Hyssop

In the end, I just decided to do my own thing: put a big bunch of lemon balm and a couple of rosemary sprigs in a pan of water, added the juice from two lemons plus the squeezed lemon halves, brought it up to the boil, switched off the heat and let the whole lot sit and infuse for a good hour or so. I strained the liquid through muslin into a milk pan, added the minimum amount of sugar I thought I could get away with (I don’t like sweet drinks), dissolved it in the liquid over heat and brought it back to the boil. We had saved a couple of screw-top glass bottles we were given after a race last year (it was a very yummy Asturian yogurt drink), so I stood them in the sink, filled them and covered the lids with boiling water to sterilise them, emptied them and, holding them in a tea towel, poured the hot cordial in and screwed the lids on tightly. Job done with the minimum of fuss, time, work and ingredients.

Lemon balm and rosemary cordial ~ disaster free!

I’m happy to report two things. One, the cordial is utterly delicious and particularly refreshing diluted with sparkling mineral water over ice. Two, the bottles have sat in the fridge in a very well-behaved manner and the contents have so far managed to remain locked down inside them, except for the portions we’ve drunk, obviously. Actually, now that I’ve successfully grappled with my cordial demons, I really need to get on and make another batch; the question is, do I stick with the same formula or try a different herbal pairing or maybe even another method? To be honest, it would make a lot of sense to play safe . . . but then I do quite fancy that moonlit dance! 🙂

Notes from a simple gardener

Water to draw, brushwood to cut, greens to pick – all in moments when morning showers let up.

Ryōkan Taigu

I like a simple life. Well, of course I do; it would be very hypocritical of me, if not downright rude, to write a blog about something I didn’t believe in, practise and – most importantly – enjoy. In our modern society, perhaps the idea of spending our days fetching water, chopping wood and picking greens seems over-simplistic, naive or impossible but I think it’s a rather beautiful ideal for all that.

In recent weeks, as mankind has been grappling with the horrors of COVID- 19, I have been encouraged to read about many people who have discovered unexpected benefits from the situations they have found themselves in: couples and families enjoying their time spent together, parents and children finding home-schooling a deeply rewarding activity, people cooking and baking instead of buying ready-meals or takeaways, exploring their local areas whilst exercising outdoors, neighbours and strangers helping one another in a myriad different ways . . . so many people who say that when this is over, they will be making changes to their lifestyles that reflect the experience of doing things differently.

I’ve also read several criticisms of this viewpoint, arguing that it reflects a privileged middle-class mindset but I feel that’s a bit of a sweeping generalisation that does everyone a disservice. Certainly, those talking about change appear to be people of all ages and from all walks of life, a real cross-section of society, in fact. Like so many aspects of life, perhaps it should all be about balance? No, of course not everyone can give up their job or home-educate their offspring and indeed many would prefer not to, anyway – but is there really anything wrong in people looking to change the values of society and the way it operates, to stand up for a society that is based more on human well-being and loving kindness than over-consumption and the constant drive to grow the economy?

One of the phenomena that I have been watching with great interest is the upsurge in gardening and I’m hopeful that it is something that will continue long after this terrible pandemic has gone. Now, obviously I’m biased because it’s something that I love to do (although I’ve always understood that it’s not for everyone) but I think the fact that so many people are now keen to grow their own food is a truly wonderful thing. I am happy to argue that the business of planting, harvesting and eating food – whether from a garden, allotment or window box – is one of the simplest yet fundamentally gratifying activities there is. Plant a seed, watch it grow, pick it and eat it. Perfectly simple and simply perfect.

Sweet peas

I think over the years, gardening has in some ways been a victim of its own success and this has led to a polarised view of what it’s all about. Garden centres brimming over with a tantalising array of seasonal goodies give the impression that all you need to do is buy and plant a plethora of fashionable things and that’s the job done. Meanwhile, celebrity gardeners demonstrating complicated procedures in perfectly manicured plots can lead some to believe that gardening is a work-heavy, complex business which is beyond the reaches of most. Again, I think it’s all about balance. Yes, growing a garden will require a certain amount of time and energy if a decent harvest is going to be enjoyed but it can and should be a pleasure, not a chore. It certainly doesn’t need to be complicated, either; in fact, in many cases it’s as simple as reading the instructions on the back of a seed packet.

Now, I would never profess to being an expert gardener; actually, I wouldn’t want to be one as I think ‘experts’ have a habit of losing their capacity to learn or be open to new ideas which is something I would hate. However, I’ve had a lot of fun over the last few weeks swapping garden notes and ideas with loved ones, celebrating successes and commiserating over problems, giving out little snippets of advice based on experience and trying some new things that have been suggested to me. Here, then, for anyone who is interested is my pocket-sized guide to growing a garden. Simply. With smiles.

Grow what you enjoy eating

It might seem obvious but there is no point in growing foods that no-one in your household actually likes eating. When we moved here, the garden was a jungle of only turnip greens and mustard, both of which the previous owner professed to not liking! It’s easy to feel that certain things are ‘essentials’ in a garden but it’s important to remember that times and attitudes change and people have different tastes . . . and they are allowed to. You don’t need a garden that is stuffed with marrows, runner beans and rhubarb. If you like those things, that’s great – go ahead and grow them; if you don’t, then don’t! No matter how small or ‘low maintenance’ your patch is, it will take time, work and money and there is no sense in squandering such precious resources on producing food that isn’t going to float your boat. Going out into the garden to forage should always be a pleasure, a huge, tongue-tingling smiley delight full of anticipation and joy not a resigned sigh at facing the blackcurrants, beetroot, broad beans (or whatever) once again.

Prioritise

If you only have a small space, don’t grow bulk crops such as onions, potatoes and carrots which tend to be cheap and plentiful in the shops all year round. Small amounts of young ones, yes; a root of melting, fondant, buttery new potatoes, the sweet crunch of a baby carrot or the sharp zing of spring onions are divine. Otherwise, buy them in and grow more interesting things or those fruit and vegetables that are seldom great from the shops: The Sugar Hits (peas, sweetcorn, parsnips), The Wilters (broccoli, salad leaves, spinach), The Flaccid Flops (asparagus, runner beans) and The Downright Flavourless (lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and a whole host of other tasteless friends).

Be realistic . . .

Any garden space has the potential to be a beautiful and productive patch but all are limited to a degree by factors such as climate, aspect, light and soil. It is possible to try and grow plants that are unsuited to the site with a lot of application and hard work but at the end of the day, is it really worth it? Happy plants make for happy gardeners! Look at what’s growing locally and the chances are that whatever is looking healthy and abundant in a neighbouring patch will thrive in your own. Bear in mind also that things will go wrong! That’s all part and parcel of the gardening experience and needs to be accepted and embraced as such, which is why a sense of humour is the most important gardening tool. Take heart from the fact that no-one is immune; we have grown peas every summer for over 30 years and yet the overwintered crop, as well as the current first earlies we are harvesting now, have totally refused to climb up their supports. Pea plants come with curly tendrils to help them cling and climb but this lot seem determined to sprawl across the ground which makes picking the pods somewhat interesting!

Last year’s peas knew how to behave.

Last year, I grew a vibrant patch of sunflowers from seed given to me by our grandchildren; once they’d finished flowering, I collected lots of seed from them, gave little packets of them away to help spread the love then planted a huge patch here a couple of weeks ago in the hope of another splash of summer colour. Ha ha! My precious seeds have been dug up and eaten by some wretched little pest (I suspect a small and furry rodent type) which then rudely left the husks scattered all over the soil. Ah well, that’s just the way it goes sometimes.

Last year, the sunflowers were beautiful; this year they were mouse breakfast.

. . . but don’t be afraid to be bold

There is no rule that says you must be a sheep in your garden: you neither have to be run-of-the-mill traditional nor follow the fashionable flock. Raised beds? Not compulsory. Fancy slate plant labels? Not necessary. This year’s latest must-have designer flower or vegetable? Not needed. Why not try something different or have a go at doing things your way? If you want to grow purple carrots or trombone squash, go ahead and grow them. If you fancy planting cabbages by your front door, do it. Don’t be too precious about things, either. If you’re looking for a cut-and-come-again salad selection but can’t find what you’re after amongst those pricey packets, make your own by mixing seeds for lots of different leaves and herbs together. You’re allowed to! There are no set hard and fast rules about what a garden should look like so why not personalise your patch? It’s your space and as such, an extension and reflection of your home and your personality . . . and no-one has the right to start tut-tutting simply because there’s a gnome lurking among your lettuce. Really. They don’t.

Cram it

One of the reasons I champion permaculture is the way in which it acknowledges – nay, celebrates! – the benefits of gardening in small spaces. It’s possible, and in many ways easier, to realise greater relative yields from smaller gardens than large, sprawling areas. The trick, though, is to fill it to bursting, cram it to the nth degree in every direction and let polyculture be your mantra!

The patch in the photo above is a steep triangle of somewhere between seven and eight square metres in area. Currently growing in it are a globe artichoke, rose, hyssop, thyme and lemon thyme all of which are permanent features. There are also onions, various types of lettuce, cucumbers, oca, flat-leaved parsley, dill, pansies, marigolds, nasturtiums, a sprinkling of buckwheat and a stray poppy (the only inedible!). I weeded between the onions in the early stages as they’re not keen on competition but for several weeks now the only input has been to harvest bits and pieces as and when we need them. Yes, there are weeds but they’re not bothering me or the plants. Why make work?

The cucumbers don’t seem too bothered by the weeds in their neighbourhood.

If this were our only vegetable patch, we wouldn’t have bothered with the onions; instead, I think a couple of heavy producers – perhaps a courgette and some chard – would have gone in along with a teepee or two of climbing beans; when you consider the vertical dimension too, you can grab yourself a couple of metres of sky to grow things in. Once the summer crops have gone, I’ll replace them with rainbow chard, various kales, rocket and landcress for a winter harvest. There will be far too many plants, of course . . . but between you and me, I think they quite enjoy jostling for elbow room.

Colour it

It’s a personal thing but I’ve never been a huge fan of ‘separate’ vegetable patches, those utilitarian spaces with perfect right angles and plants regimented in precise rows, hidden away from view as if the sight of vegetables is a less than desirable thing. With each successive garden that we have created together, the boundaries between the ‘vegetable garden’ and ‘flower garden’ have become increasingly blurred so that they have pretty much disappeared and become one big gorgeous, chaotic (but very productive) space. Please grow herbs and some flowers, too. Everyone needs colour and spice in their life and mixing them through with the veggies enhances the whole garden and feeds the soul as well as the stomach. More than that, I firmly believe that something as simple as snipping a few chives or sprinkling marigold petals over a salad can be a deeply transformative act. I’m currently reading – for the umpteenth time – The Complete Book of Herbs by Lesley Bremness, a book I’ve had for over thirty years and have never tired of.

I’ve been inspired to explore new recipes using the herbs from our garden, including iced lemon balm and lavender tea which I find is the perfect sipping drink on hot days.

I do, however, have to disgree a tiny bit with Lesley when it comes to choosing flowers to incorporate in salads; she argues for a restricted palette of colours that go well together and are easy on the eye – sage and borage, for example. Mmm. The point is, I don’t garden like that so I’m afraid when it comes to floral art amongst the salad leaves, it’s rainbows all the way for me.

Love it

Love your garden. Love your soil. Love your worms. Make space for wildlife, even if it does mean something munching your sunflower seeds. The patch in the photos below is a couple of square metres we gave over to nature last year, a grotty former chicken run which was ugly beyond words. Beneath all that greenery is a concrete floor with several centimetres of rubble pile on top and covered with a pathetically thin layer of soil. Nothing seems too bothered by this inauspicious base layer. Last year, I scattered a box of ‘bee and butterfly’ seed and the space was filled with annual colour; this year the biennials and perennials have surfaced, with a supporting cast of wild incomers such as violets, charlock, knapweed and ‘three birds flying.’ The tiny pond – a former water trough – squirms with the wriggling and rummaging of newts and the fattest tadpoles I’ve ever seen. Birds drink and bathe in the water daily, and lizards sip daintily from the stone-lined edge. Frogs and toads lurk in the damp shade at its fringes. The piles of rotting logs, chopped brushwood and cut grass are home to slow-worms and grass snakes, whilst the growing greenery and flowers are literally teeming with insect life. Can you spot the grasshopper?

Enjoy it – the most important bit of all

Plant a comfy seat, grab a mug or glass of something then sit and watch your garden grow. There is nothing else to say! 🙂

From lockdown, with love

Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Alexander Pope

We are now in the third week of lockdown in Spain as the country continues its fight against the Covid-19 virus. What a wonderful (if tentative) moment of hope when last week it became clear that Asturias had moved beyond the peak as the number of new cases began to fall; the government here instigated measures several days before the declaration of a national state of alarm and so the principality is running a little ahead of the national situation. Of course, there is a long, long way to go yet and as keyworkers continue in their tireless and heroic efforts to save lives, to keep us safe and to maintain essential supply chains, for most people daily reality remains being confined en casa. The media focus tends to fall on the experience of people living in urban areas, which is quite understandable: that is where the vast majority of the population lives, many of them confined to small apartments with a tiny balcony their only window on the world. I give thanks every day that we have a beautiful garden and a stunning view, open space and limitless fresh air where we can breathe deeply, stretch our limbs and feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. We are very blessed.

However, it was interesting and refreshing one day last week to see the local online press reporting on the experience of rural dwellers in what is known as Asturias vaciada – emptied Asturias. Like many parts of Spain, Asturias has experienced mass rural depopulation over the last few decades, leaving a countryside littered with empty houses, meagre settlements and an elderly population. Our village is no exception; of the 26 dwellings here, half are unoccupied and as a couple in our fifties we are very much at the younger end of the age range. Local councils are working hard to provide round-the-clock help and care for vulnerable people living in these isolated areas whose situation at first glance might seem deeply concerning . . . and yet, the newspaper report shared a fascinating insight by one interviewee who made three wise and salient observations about the experience and resilience of rural people in these difficult and uncertain times.

The first point they made was that living in such relatively empty rural areas, it can be many days before you cross a neighbour’s path. ‘Isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are part and parcel of everyday life and as such, come as no surprise or hardship. For us, this is absolutely true. Even if I go out on a run (not currently, obviously!) that takes me down to the village, I only pass one house closely and more often than not, I don’t see our neighbours who live there. In another direction, I can walk or run for over two miles before I come to the first occupied house. I have lost count of the number of times we have gone out from home or further afield and walked for many hours without seeing another soul. If we stay at home, we can go for several days without seeing anyone unless our postman Ricardo comes down the lane or Jairo comes up to check his cows. I’ve read a lot lately about how human beings are social creatures who crave company but I think that’s a bit of a sweeping generalisation; I love Roger’s company, I enjoy communicating and spending time with others but I also delight in a bit of solitude and have always been completely comfortable on my own. If you are used to being alone, then loneliness is rarely an issue. If your daily routine isn’t built around contact and constant chatter, then silence is a pleasure, not a threat.

The second point made was that when people are used to producing their own food whether it be vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, meat, milk, eggs or whatever, when ‘normal’ life involves baking your own bread and making preserves, when meal planning starts with what you have at home, then there is no need to go to the shops regularly. The constraint of only being allowed to travel short distances to buy essential supplies doesn’t bring too many changes. Every occupied house in our village has a productive vegetable garden and fruit trees, and many have chickens, beehives and a pig. There are no doorstep supermarket deliveries but each week sees vans selling bread, frozen foods, cakes, fruit and vegetables and fresh fish arrive in the village – the drivers with hand on horn to announce their arrival – and this has continued through lockdown. We might live a long way from the nearest food shops and supermarket, we might be eating a lot of kale and squash and salad . . . but we are most definitely not going hungry.

Third, it was pointed out that if we spend our time caring for a few animals or tending a patch of land then our days are naturally filled with activities that are nurturing, absorbing and uplifting. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we are immune to the events or horrors of the wider world, just that our mental focus centres on a way of living that teaches us how to cope with the ups and downs of life, how to be pragmatic and optimistic and above all, keeps us grounded in the cycles and seasons of the natural world.

That final point resonated very strongly with me, which I’m sure will come as no surprise to regular readers; I make no secret of the fact that a close connection to nature is fundamental to my lifestyle and, most definitely, my wellbeing. Despite the worrying headlines and footage from around the world, and anxious thoughts about the safety of loved ones, if I can put my hands into the earth, sprinkle seeds, see the bright green fizz of new leaves unfurling, plunge my nose into flowers and hear the call of the cuckoo on the mountain, then I have hope and healing.

I love the idea of ‘listening to the land,’ an idea shared by Patrick Whitefield in The Earthcare Manual and Mary Reynolds in The Garden Awakening, two absorbing and inspiring books I have read and re-read in recent months. I particularly liked Patrick’s astute observation that if you ask someone to observe a garden or piece of ground they tend to reach for paper and pen and start to write notes or make sketches; on the other hand, asking them to close ther eyes and listen to the land leads to a stillness and focus and -ultimately – a much greater awareness of the feel of the place. This reminds me of the way in which the ancient druids used sensory deprivation as a powerful learning tool which heightened their awareness and creativity. With her love of Irish magic, Mary refers to the spirit of the land and both authors recognise the importance of acknowledging, recognising and honouring this quality in designing and caring for gardens. It’s a case of not asking, ‘What can we do with this land?’ but instead, ‘ How can we work with it?’ The two are often very different things! So, with this in mind, and given that we are at least allowed into the garden if not beyond, we have been spending our days working on some of the new projects I mentioned in an earlier post. (As these are ongoing activities, please bear in mind, some of the photos are several weeks old.)

First, our attempts to reduce the amount of ugly concrete. Having talked about a few possible ideas, we decided to start by removing a wide strip of concrete that runs from the yard to the field gate along the top of the vegetable patch; the path doesn’t need to be that wide and we hoped that by swapping the concrete for a planting area, we could capture a sense of the garden extending and flowing more naturally.

As with so many projects, making a start was the trickiest part as there’s no way of knowing whether it will be a success or not. Nothing for it, then, but to grab the sledgehammer and get stuck in . . .

Once Roger had made that start, things went pretty swimmingly although it never fails to astound me just how much rubble jobs like this create.

With the concrete lifted, the next job was to tackle the wall at the far end; as it holds the path up, it was important not to remove it. However, there was certainly scope for a radical overhaul as the wall had been cobbled together with bits of breeze block, bricks, metal mesh and a whole host of other rubbish in the unique style of ‘building’ we have become used to finding here. What was truly puzzling is that the area behind this dubious construction had been filled with flat stones just perfect for building a . . . wall!

I believe one of the best ways to listen to the land is to work with naturally occurring materials wherever possible and the local stone is no exception. Our house, barn and horreo were all originally built from the honey-coloured stone that is typical of the area and we have used it to build many terraces in the garden. The obvious thing to do here, then, was to remove the ‘rubble wall’ and replace it with a more attractive and far more appropriate dry stone one. With that done, and the ground dug over (and another huge pile of rubble dug out in the process) and a generous quantity of muck forked in, the new planting area was created. There’s no rush to plant it, though; I love the way that things spread and self-set so liberally here, so we’ll give nature free reign in the coming months and see what transpires.

Staying in the same area of the garden, and in the last couple of summers I have planted hanging baskets on the horreo, loving the idea of bright splashes of floral colour against that lovely stone. The results, I have to confess, have been a bit mixed; I’ve struggled to find plants that have been truly happy – even geraniums (pelargoniums) which grow like a weed here failed to really give it their best shot. Hanging baskets are not a common sight here and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a good reason for that, so it’s time for a radical rethink. I’ve ditched any thought of flowers (and let’s face it, we’re not exactly short of colour here) and I’m trying strawberries instead, using some of the spare plants we had in our bare-rooted bundle a few weeks ago. In place of my usual eucalyptus bark liner, I’ve gone for something completely different but definitely up my street: sheep’s wool. I have been meaning for months (um . . . years?) to sort out a huge bag of Manx Loaghton fleece, much of which is daggy and unspinnable, but which I’ve kept for just such an occasion. It was lovely time spent in the sunshine, putting aside a happy quantity of good stuff – there’s at least another teddy bear’s worth to be spun – and using the rest to make gorgeously deep, warm, soft basket linings. I then put a plant saucer in the base of each and filled the baskets to the top with our home-produced compost, before adding the plants. I’m looking forward to seeing how they go this year- just as long as the birds don’t help themselves to the wool for nests in the meantime!

The orchard makeover a few weeks ago was quite a project but already we are reaping the benefits of all the hard work. With paths dug out and stone steps built in, we can now weave our way around the whole area and climb up and down the steep slope without slipping and sliding like we did before. It is wonderful to be able to wander around and see how quickly things have grown and changed in such a short time. Our newly-planted fruit trees have settled in and are bursting into leaf, whilst the more established ones are scenting the air with their delicate blossoms.

There are wildflowers everywhere and it is incredible how such a rough, stony, inaccesible and ugly corner has been transformed into a delightful carpet of colour, buzzing with life. We certainly listened to the land with this project and nature hasn’t disappointed.

Staying with fruit and it has been quite a steep learning curve for us finding out what will and won’t grow well here. There were peaches, apricots, figs and pears here when we arrived, all of which thrive (as long as the blossom isn’t blasted in spring storms). To those trees we have added apples, cherries, plums, more pears, an orange, a lemon and a plum, all of which grow well locally. Soft fruit hasn’t been such a success. There were summer raspberries here but they were the most tasteless things on earth and even the birds wouldn’t touch them; I replaced them with autumn varieties which I prefer anyway (I think they have a better flavour and they don’t need all that faffing about with wires and cages). Blimey, how they grew, I had raspberry canes everywhere . . . but not a single flower and therefore no fruit, because our winter simply isn’t cold enough to give them the kick they need. Thankfully, the wild strawberries are hugely reliable and grow literally everywhere on our patch so I’m hoping our bigger, cultivated varieties will do as well.

Since we moved here, two local farmers have planted fields of blueberry bushes so that suggested they might grow happily here; well, yes and no. One of our three bushes has died but we did get a sprinkling of berries last year so I think the jury is still out on that one. As a bit of a bonus, though, last summer a mystery physalis plant appeared from nowhere growing out of a wall near the polytunnel. It’s not something we’ve ever grown here but nature obviously decided to plant it on our behalf.

To be honest, I’d pretty much forgotten about it; it set a few fruits but they didn’t mature (and I still didn’t know whether it was a cape gooseberry or a tomatillo) and over winter, the whole plant had disappeared under a swathe of red deadnettle. What a lovely surprise, then, to be foraging last week – it’s amazing how much more attention I pay to things in this lockdown situation, every moment outside is so precious – and find a lovely little picking of sweet and tasty fruits! Roger felt a rich dark chocolate mousse would be just the thing to set them off, and so it was. Here’s another fruit to put on the planting list, then.

Something new we are trying is redcurrants; we’ve always grown them in the past and miss them in summer puddings and redcurrant jelly which is such a useful ingredient in cooking, but we’ve never had them here. We decided to plant the bush below a couple of cardoons at the field end of the vegetable patch but were a bit concerned about the site being too exposed to the prevailing wind. Listening to the land once again, it seemed the obvious thing to do was to plant a small hedge to give a little protection, and what better way of doing that than lifting tree seedlings from around our patch? Well, any excuse for a wander through the woods.

Woodland is an environment that never fails to lift my spirits but there is something particularly special about this time of year when the leaves burst their buds to reveal fresh, glossy, new growth and the birds herald the season in a joyful cacophony of song. I was supposed to be looking for potential seedlings but found my eyes distracted ever upwards.

Luckily, there was no shortage of tiny trees pushing up through the leaf litter and we had soon lifted a collection of mixed varieties, including birch, oak, willow and bay. What a lovely thing, to gather a little part of the woodland to enjoy in the garden; four weeks on, our new hedge is growing vigorously and the redcurrant bush is looking very happy, too.

Back to the confines of the garden and we have been busy this week looking ahead to this year’s new harvests, planting out summer brassicas and lettuce, potting on tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers and squash, sowing beans and courgettes (and sweet peas! 🙂 ) and preparing a patch for the onion seedlings that are almost ready to transplant. There has been so much of the season to enjoy: the first resident swallow swooping through in the evening sunshine, the scurry of lizards everywhere, the busyness of flocks of goldfinches and serins flitting through the orchard, the warble of blackbirds ever earlier in the morning, the incessant bustle of bees and butterflies, the wriggle of fat tadpoles in our tiny pond, the sweep of a soft green haze through the woodlands, the pretty pink ruffles of the first roses and the heady scent of jasmine and freesias by the kitchen door.

My complete absorption in so much beauty and wonder in no way diminishes or trivialises the seriousness of the ongoing global situation; believe me, I am as anxious and concerned as the next person. It’s just that once more, I find great comfort in the continued cycle of the seasons, in the fact that nature goes on, spring happens, new life appears, the garden smiles with flowers and I smile with it. In fact, in these dark days I smile for the whole of humanity. A smile of kindness, a smile of love and a smile of hope. Whoever you are, wherever you are and whatever your situation, I hope that you can smile with me, if only for a moment. 🙂

En casa

What a difference a couple of weeks can make. There I was in my last post writing about some of the lovely walks we’d been doing locally and now, following last Friday’s declaration by prime minister Pedro Sánchez of a national state of alarm in Spain, we are not allowed to walk any further than the garden.

I am not complaining. The response by the Spanish and Asturian governments to the coronavirus situation was swift, decisive and efficient, putting the welfare of people ahead of any political shenanigans; the 15-day ‘lockdown’ is designed to minimise contact between people whilst enabling key workers to do their vital jobs and essential industries to keep supply chains open. The sense of common purpose, solidarity and concern for each other’s welfare is immense.

We are very lucky. We don’t have to worry about going to work or the financial hardships of being laid off or of trying to care for dependants under difficult circumstances. We are not trapped in a city flat with small children. We are not living alone. We live in a very beautiful place and it is no hardship to keep ourselves to ourselves at home; we are allowed to leave (one of us at a time only) if we need essential goods from a supermarket or pharmacy, or to receive medical attention, but there is a good chance we won’t need to go anywhere.

There are far worse places to be stuck.

Something that has become abundantly clear is that leading the kind of life we do normally – very simple, minimal consumption, close to self-sufficiency – in a sharing, caring community, makes us far more resilient than many others in a time of crisis. We don’t have to worry about food as we have a freezer and cupboards that are well-stocked (but not stockpiled!) with a wide range of ingredients, both bought and home-produced. We also have foods from the garden and orchard that are stored in the horreo or have been dried, bottled or made into preserves.

Even now, the traditional time of year for a hungry gap, we still have a plentiful supply of fresh vegetables and fruit from the garden and tunnel.

We buy fresh milk in bulk and freeze it as a matter of course, but always have a couple of cartons of UHT as a standby; if we end up having to drink black coffee, it will hardly be the end of the world. We make all our own bread using a sourdough starter so don’t have to worry about running out of fresh yeast, although we keep a packet of dried stuff to hand in case our starter decides to give up the ghost. In short, where food is concerned, we could survive a lockdown of many weeks and if that means eating a lot of squash and bean soup, then so be it.

Thankfully, we are both generally fit and healthy; we don’t require any regular medication and in fact, we have only used the medical services three times between us in the (nearly) four years we have lived here so the chances are we will not need to add to the considerable burden the health care systems are currently facing. We are used to reaching for natural remedies for minor discomforts and ailments and it’s wonderful what comfort can be found in honey, lemon, ginger, chillies, sage and a host of other herbs and flowers from the garden.

Pot marigolds (calendula) play an important role in our herbal medicine chest; the garden is currently full of their sunny blooms.

Given that it is nothing for us to go for a fortnight or more without getting in the car to travel anywhere, then staying at home bothers us not one jot. We don’t base our lives around clubs, restaurants, cinemas, shopping and the like so we don’t miss them. We are happiest pottering about on our patch and have no problems entertaining ourselves. We don’t live a life glued to television screens or smartphones (we have neither) but we are very grateful for the internet, particularly as we are in daily contact with our offspring, enjoying a lively discussion and comparison of the situation in Spain, Norway and the UK; video chatting to our grandchildren online is always great fun! We have no problems filling our time with other things: cooking, music, reading, writing, studying Spanish, playing games, chatting and laughing together. I am happy to watch the busyness of insects, the flutter of birds, the dashing of lizards. I love to contemplate the silk inside a petal or the subtle shifts of colour in a sunset. I never need asking twice to crack open a new ball of sock wool!

The only drawback of curtailed liberty for us is the fact that we can’t get out to walk or run; in a normal week, I usually run about 20 miles (32 km) and Roger notches up an almighty 100 miles (160 km) or more. Now we are not allowed to run on public roads and all the forthcoming races we had entered have quite rightly been cancelled. Yes, it is something we miss but again, we’re not complaining: how could we when other people are suffering in so many ways? It’s simply a case of adapting and finding alternatives and at least we can get outside, unlike so many others; there is much activity to be had through gardening, a mat and weights in the house and barn make a perfectly good home gym, and 140 lengths of the barn is one kilometre of running! We love the joyful camaraderie of the running community here so it’s no surprise that there is much sharing of ideas about how to keep fit en casa. Far from mourning running (ha ha, now who’d believe that?), I’m experimenting with other things such as some new cardio yoga routines and learning to zumba. The loveliest video clip I have seen this week is of a whole community in highrise apartments doing exercises together to music on their balconies. What a wonderfully uplifting sight.

Running shoes are confined to barracks!

Being able and willing to adapt to change is most definitely another consequence of living life as we do; if we have to manage without something, we simply find an alternative or change our habits without any fuss. It astounds me that faced with the rumour of shortages, the western world rushes out and fills shopping trolleys with, of all things, toilet paper! Holy crap, what is that all about? Yes, it’s something we use but if we run out, then we will switch to water and washable rags. It’s probably what we should be doing anyway and I suspect if it happened, we’d never swap back.

The switch from tissues to cotton hankies wasn’t a difficult one to make.

Reflecting on all these things I’ve noticed that the more we simplify things, the more we can do without and this seems to happen in an exponential way. Take, for instance, toiletries. It’s fair to say we started from a reasonably sane place as neither of us has ever been what you might call high maintenance; in fact, the list of grooming products and processes I’ve never tried (hair dye, leg wax, cleanse-tone-moisturise procedures, anti-wrinkle potions, spray tans, eyebrow threading, manicure, pedicure, massage, spa treatments . . . and zillions of other things, most of which I don’t even recognise!) far outweighs those I have. I haven’t worn perfume for twenty years and the last make up I applied was a slick of mascara for Sam and Adrienne’s wedding in July 2018. I might look like a greying, wrinkling 53 year-old but actually, that’s exactly what I am and I’m proud of it; I have no desire to try and look younger, but part of me suspects the bountiful fresh air, exercise, healthy diet and laughter that fill my days brings more to my life than any chemical-laden product ever could.

I’ll take this over a trip to the hairdresser any day!

So, with this in mind, last year I set out to pare back the bought products we have and replace them with homemade ones: cue a fascinating foray into the world of soap-making. I love the fact that making my own toiletries gives me complete control over what goes into them; they might seem a bit rustic but at least they are as ‘natural’ as possible. Having played around with several soap recipes, I’ve come to the conclusion that I now only need to make one kind from a mix of coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, castor oil and shea butter; the beauty of this recipe is that it doubles as a solid shampoo so it’s all we need in the bathroom, and a couple of batches keep us going for a whole year.

Even better, now that I’ve found an affordable and reliable source of rye flour (well, two in fact), I’ve started to use that as shampoo so the soaps will go much further in the long run. I’m still making a herbal infusion by simmering a handful of herbs in water – sage and rosemary are my favourites, with a few cloves thrown in for a deeper, spicy note – but not adding apple cider vinegar any more as this is now a base for the shampoo, not a conditioning rinse. The infusion keeps in the fridge for a couple of weeks and actually doubles as a mouthwash that is great for the gums. I simply mix a dessertspoon of rye flour with some infusion to make a paste, then add more of the liquid to end up with a pretty runny consistency which is easier to work into my mop of very thick hair. It’s a simple routine in the shower: I wet my hair, work in the flour shampoo and leave while I wash myself, then rinse thoroughly. Job done. I can’t praise this mix enough, my hair is very soft, silky and shiny and easily lasts four or five days between washes. Kitchen cupboard shampoo. Brilliant.

I’m not the only one who loves rosemary! It’s one of our top bumble bee flowers at the moment.

On the same theme, I’ve just made another batch of solid hand lotion. This is far easier than soap as there’s no lye involved: I simply melt beeswax, shea butter, coconut oil and cocoa butter together in a bowl over simmering water on the woodstove and pour into moulds (I use an old silicon muffin mould). I store the spares in a tea tin I had as a gift and keep the current bar in an old Lush tin which is very portable. The lotion is really lovely, very silky and smooth and can be used on hands, feet, face, all over, in fact. Oh, and it makes a great lip balm, too. Now there’s a simplicity I love.

One of the changes we’ve made recently is to stop buying commercially-produced compost and to rely wholly on our home-produced compost instead. I’m very thrilled that we’ve successfully achieved a closed loop with this, recycling every scrap of biodegradable waste and putting it all back into the soil and food production. There is no doubting the benefit that using it as a mulch has brought, the soil is literally heaving with worms and life. In stark contrast to last year, our vegetable seedlings in trays and pots are growing strongly and healthily.

Meals in waiting: vegetable seedlings in the tunnel.

The downside, of course, is that it’s not sterile so all sorts of other things pop up too and we have to spend some time nipping the rogue seedlings out. It’s also quite chunky so this week Roger turned some scrap plastic mesh (part of one of our wonderful original fences here) and odds and ends of timber into a sieve. It’s not fine enough to separate out all the seeds but certainly keeps two of the biggest nuisances – squash seeds and peach stones – out of the mix. I’ve had a very happy time in the tunnel, sifting a mountain of compost into lovely, fine stuff, picking out any stones and returning the bigger organic lumps to the compost heap. As for the self-set squash that had already emerged, they’ve been potted up for the garden, and any that appear in the compost heap will be left to grow and trail as they love to do; the vast majority of our squash was grown like this last year, mixed up mongrels from open-pollinated varieties and they have been fabulous. We might never bother buying squash seed again.

Organising our lives to be as self-sufficient, sustainable, eco-friendly and plastic-free as possible takes time and can’t all be done at once for many reasons which can lead to a sense of frustration. At times it feels like we’ve stopped moving forward and then something comes along that gives me heart once again. One of the things I’ve found hard to get round here is the reliance in shops on single-use plastic bags for loose produce and the fact that there is no tare on the scales which would allow me to take my own bags or containers. Great news, then, to find that re-usable, washable mesh bags have suddenly become the fashion for fruit and vegetables but as they are very fine, I can use them for buying things like loose grains and spices, too. This is progress.

I was also delighted to find several outlets for the herbal teas produced by Pharmadus Botanicals, a family company from León. Much of what they sell- dried rosemary, mint, eucalyptus and the like – I can produce at home but I don’t grow green tea (yet!) and I’ve never been able to find a loose leaf variety here until now. The Spanish drink a lot of tea and tisanes, so there is a fantastic variety of types, flavours and mixes to choose from . . . but they tend to come in teabags on strings with a cardboard tab, individually wrapped in paper packets and stacked in a cardboard box which is then sealed in clear plastic. It’s a packaging nightmare and somewhere in the depths of it all is a meagre 30 grams of tea! So, this large leaf green tea is a great find: 50 grams of tea in a paper bag that is plastic-free and totally biodegrable (oh, and the same price as the highly-packaged stuff, too). I wish I could return them for a refill, but in the meantime those little bags are just perfect for storing my own dried herbal mixes. Cuppa, anyone?

Returning to the coronavirus and the latest predictions in Asturias are that the peak will occur during the first week of April; it’s likely, then, that the lockdown could be extended. That’s fine. Whatever it takes. In the meantime, I feel nothing but an overwhelming sense of gratitude, respect and admiration for those who are working in extreme circumstances for the welfare of us all and a deep sense of concern and empathy for everyone who is stricken and suffering, in whatever way. Finally, I have a profound sense of hope: hope that, once this is over, humanity can take a long, hard look at the chaos and rush of modern lifestyles and the fragile state of our beautiful planet and maybe – just maybe – reset some of the values that underpin all that we do. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to shift from me to we, from just in time to having more time, from stuff to smiles, from stress to simplicity, from shopping to sharing, from having to happiness? I believe so, and as a man once famously wrote, you might think I’m a dreamer . . . but I’m not the only one. 🙂

Staying put

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

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

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

Our friendly village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The beginnings of a stone staircase.

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

Where do we start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The road less travelled

Often footsore, never
Yet of the road I weary,                  
Though long and steep and dreary,
As it winds on for ever.

Edward Thomas

Having recently celebrated another year in my life’s journey, I’ve been giving some thought to what it feels like for me to be 53 (my goodness, that old?! 🙂 ). I know it’s a cliché but I certainly feel like the older I get, the less I know – yet the more I want to learn, experience and feel. By that, I don’t mean I have an urge to travel the world, gain more qualifications, chase adrenaline highs, break records or spend my time ticking a pile of items off a long and crazy bucket list. Quite the opposite, in fact; something I have come to realise more and more in recent years is that when life is lived simply and I allow myself to be open to all possibilities, even the smallest experiences can be of immense value. Life-changing, even. The path might not always be easy or clear, but anything that helps to keep me physically fit and active, gives my brain a good workout, encourages creativity, bolsters my sense of fun and helps me keep a sense of wonder is treasure indeed.

This was all brought home to me this week when we spent a day exploring a local walking route on the excuse that Sam and Adrienne are coming to stay with us in January. Our time with them is always golden (especially so now they live in Norway) and generally revolves around lots of good food and hiking so we like to have at least one new walk up our sleeve for when they visit. The Esva gorge is probably my favourite walk here and one I never tire of, so I was very excited to be following a different circular route that would bring us to it from a completely new direction. Starting in the village of Naraval, about half an hour’s drive from home, we climbed gently through green meadows in a quintessential Asturian landscape.

The next section came as something of a surprise, though, and was a reminder that the only constant in life is change; it had been billed as several kilometres of forest . . . but the trees had been harvested, the forest gone and in its place, a wide expanse of empty moorland. Mmm. Now I love a bit of woodland so disappointment was my first reaction but, on further reflection, I could see the positive side. It seems that the area is being left to regenerate naturally as part of a rural forestry project, rather than being planted with the ubiquitous eucalyptus, and the resulting dense undergrowth was thick with bird life. Is this rewilding in action?

At the same time, the open landscape gave us the chance to enjoy some spectacular views and – what still always come to me as a surprise in such a mountainous region – those vast expanses and sweeps of sky.

Several kilometres into our walk and we decided to perch on a rock and enjoy a flask of strong, Spanish coffee and some home made mince pies. Is it me, or does coffee take on a whole new delicious flavour at times like this, that nutty roasted aroma curling up out of the flask into the December air? The mince pies weren’t bad either; I’ve been playing about with my mincemeat recipe this year as I couldn’t find some key ingredients but I have to say cranberries for currants, butter for suet and walnuts for almonds have been great exchanges. The star, though, is the home made candied peel: why, oh why, have I ever bought pots of that sticky, gloopy stuff when it is child’s play to make and a hundred times more delicious? I’m definitely not too old to learn new tricks! Anyway, back to our walk and, suitably refreshed, we carried on until suddenly the top of the gorge appeared in front us. Looking across at the mountain opposite, we could see a path we have followed before, winding its way across the mountainside; when we are on it, it feels completely wild, a bit like a remote cliff edge hanging over a dizzying height – quite funny to see another path and houses above it, then!

It is almost impossible to capture the scale and beauty of this place in a photo, the gorge plummeting in a deep, steep-sided fissure, the rocky sides clothed in a blanket of trees, layer upon layer. My woodland at last! A little sunshine would have set the view alight but even without it, there were enough leaves to burnish the landscape with the metallic brights of late autumn.

We stood and watched a black kite wheeling gracefully above us on silent wings, its forked tail printing a perfect V against the sky. Below us, the tumbledown ruins of a stone cottage, the remains of a bread oven still visible in one dilapidated wall. Was it courage or madness to have built a home here, hauling and shaping and placing blocks of stone to create a shelter in such an eyrie?

Things really started to get interesting now as we began our descent following a path known as Las Vueltas del Gato (Cat Bends). This is an ancient drovers’ path, used by the vaqueiros to move their cattle from the valley bottom to the higher pastures for summer grazing in the practice of transhumance. I love paths like this with their deep sense of history and rural tradition, that faint whisper and echo of thousands of footsteps that have passed this way before. Two things are certain: the building of this path was an incredible feat of engineering and both man and beast that followed it must have been very sure-footed because blimey, that is one heck of a route!

It was like going down a steep rocky stream bed which felt near vertical in places (I exaggerate only slightly, I really was wishing I’d taken my trusty stick at this point) and made incredibly tight turns in tricky places. No question of not concentrating, we had to watch every step as we zigzagged down, making a point of stopping here and there to enjoy the view. It was an incredible descent – 170 metres’ drop in 500 metres of walking – and I have to admit, I was happy to be going down: the climb up would be something else!

The further down the path we travelled, the louder the sound of rushing water became until at last, we glimpsed the glassy green of a river between the trees. Well, rivers, actually. In front of us, the serene río Navelgas-Barcena  and to our right, the busy, chattering río Naraval; they meet on a wide sweeping bend in a pool of deep, clear water, their union giving birth to the beautiful río Esva.

What a completely magical spot this is, I could quite happily sit here for hours just drinking in the peace and magic of the place. There was such a strong sense of nature in the raw, the sheer activity and power of fresh water on its ceaseless journey, deftly carving a sinuous pathway through the land. Here the mirrored silver of slower stretches, there the bright foamy babble over rocks; so much movement, so much energy, so much sound. The skeletal trees, too, told their own story, their gnarled trunks and branches cloaked in soft moss and spattered with starry lichen, the last leaves fluttering down around us like silent feathers. What a feast for the senses. What a perfect moment in life. Money could not buy this.

This was the lowest point of our walk so we decided it was a good place to eat our picnic lunch before beginning the long trek back. As the next section involved wading across the río Naraval, we thought it wiser not to risk soggy sandwiches (for the same reason, Roger was in charge of the camera – if anyone fell in, it would be me). The route directions said that it was usually possible to cross the river this way and thankfully it was, as the thought of having to climb back up Las Vueltas del Gato didn’t fill me with too much joy. This sort of carry on does, though; I mean, how often do we do daft things like this? and why don’t we do them more often? Just the simple sensation of forest floor beneath my bare feet, then rocks, then chilly water was enough to make me giggle with the sheer childlike exuberance of being alive. The boulders were slippery, the pools deep in places and the water moving at a fair old lick but I made it across without dropping my boots or falling in. Brilliant fun !

Feet dried, boots back on and toes tingling and warm again, we walked along the tree-lined banks of the río Navelgas-Barcena  before turning upwards into a long climb. The path was certainly easier than those Cat Bends, rising steadily through a mixed forest and giving us glimpses across the valley to where we had been earlier.

At the top of a rise, we came to a four-way crossing and hit a bit of a snag; as an official walking route, the AS-287, the way had been marked pretty clearly so far but just as we really needed a sign, there was nothing apart from a couple of ambiguously placed yellow and white crosses to indicate where we shouldn’t go. Our map and directions (which had lost so much in translation they were almost like a third language) weren’t much help either, as both had suddenly become very vague. In the end, we plumped for what we hoped was the right turn (well, left in fact) and set off along several kilometres of gently climbing path which wound its way through a coniferous forest.

The trees had very much been planted for a harvest, their formal rows and grids so different from the wild tangle of the woodland below, but there is still a charm to stretches of forest like this, the sharp pine scent, soft carpet of needles and a wealth of spiralled cones.

The route we were following was supposed to be 14 kilometres (8.7 miles) in total and we were within a couple of kilometres from the road that would take us back to our starting point when we turned a corner to see this . . .

Now fallen trees and boulders are a fairly common occurrence here and we have found ourselves scrambling over or wriggling under such obstacles on numerous occasions. This, however, was more than just a fallen tree and the throaty growl of machinery beyond suggested that scrambling over would be pointless; there was a major forest harvest in full swing and the whole path had become completely impassable. Nothing for it but to retrace our steps and try to find an alternative route over the mountain and down to the road. At this point, I was thankful for several things: the fact that we hadn’t scoffed our whole picnic by the river but still had apples and water in our rucksacks; the fact that there were still a few hours of daylight left; the fact that my feet and legs felt like they could manage the extra miles that were now inevitable; mostly, the fact that we both have a good sense of direction and a good sense of humour – both would be needed in the next couple of hours! There’s a choice in this kind of situation, isn’t there? Either feel frustrated, cross or hopeless and turn it into some kind of drama or look on it as an adventure, part of life’s rich tapestry and deal with it . . . which is what we did. After all, we weren’t lost exactly, just not completely sure where we were and common sense told us there had to be another way down; there was, of course, it just added another six kilometres (3.7 miles) or so to our walk. Ah, well. Onward, my love.

We finally arrived back in the village of Naraval, crossing the river of the same name once again but using a modern road bridge this time – no need for bare feet here. The charming old stone bridge was still there, too, another ancient reminder of times gone by, when the pace of life was slower and bridges only needed to carry feet and hooves across the water. Time for us to head home and reflect on the adventure we’d had, such a precious and enriching experience in a very special landscape and so many miles without seeing another soul. It seemed that nature hadn’t quite finished with us, though: what a perfect ending to a wonderful day. 🙂