Contrasts

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

John Steinbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December
August

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

December
August

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

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

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

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

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

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

December
August

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

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

December

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

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

December
August

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

December
August

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

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

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

December
August

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

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

Woodlands and other wanderings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 . . ! 🙂

Spotlight on Ponga #1

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.

John Muir

A third of the Asturian landscape has protection status of one kind or another and the province has the most Biosphere Reserves in Spain: seven. I totally understand why well-known areas such as The Picos de Europa National Park and the Somiedo Natural Park are such people magnets, both for locals and visitors as they are completely stunning and special places. However, I’ve always had a soft spot for Ponga Natural Park because it is very beautiful, very wild and very, very quiet and the chance to spend some time there exploring new corners and walking routes as part of our summer ‘staycation’ was one definitely not to be missed.

Covering an area of 255 km2 and rising to a maximum elevation of 2,142 metres, Ponga offers a wealth of fabulous possibilities when it comes to walking. Our first adventure started at the mountain village of Taranes from which we decided to follow the circular route of Foz de la Escalada-Tiatordos; this was in fact something like Plan D that day ~ certainly not what we’d been expecting to do when we left home ~ but at roughly 20k / 12 miles with a climb of 1000-1300m / 3300 – 4300ft it looked like our kind of challenge. We set off up the cobbled path, so typical of many we have walked in Asturias; whether an ancient route between villages, a drovers’ road or medieval pilgrims’ way, the work that went into constructing them in such difficult places never fails to amaze me.

We hadn’t gone very far before I decided to trot back to the car and fetch my stick. I usually prefer to walk without it but when a local council here feels the need to post a warning that you are embarking up a ruta muy peligrosa (very dangerous path) then you can be confident we are talking extremes and for me, that means my trusty walking stick is essential. An old lady sitting on a bench and cracking walnuts with a stone in the shade of a huge ash tree nodded her approval when she saw what I was back at the car for, telling me it would give me ‘great strength.’ Mmm, she had probably already skipped round the entire walk like a spring lamb that morning. I kid you not; the Asturian mayores are something else! So, stick retrieved, we started to climb the path, quickly leaving the village far below.

The path rose steeply up through a spectacular gorge; it was warm work and I was very grateful for the cloud cover as we wound our way forever upwards. Mighty rock formations towered above us, the river splashed and crashed over boulders and down waterfalls, there was an abundance of green at every turn and the wildflowers were breathtaking. What a magical place!

We paused to share a flask of coffee and drink in the natural beauty around us, watched over by a pair of choughs who bounced their rubbery croaks at us from a great height. Continuing to the top of the gorge, the path turned into a vast swathe of broadleaf forest, still constantly climbing but now through a tunnel of green.

Any hopes of the path becoming easier in this stretch were completely dashed as we found we had exchanged slippery cobbles for gullies of mud where trying to find a foothold was almost impossible in places. I have to admit that my progress was also severely hampered by the fact that I was so enchanted by my surroundings, I kept taking my eye off the path.

After much mud-surfing (and a little yoga) we eventually emerged from the trees into a sunlit meadow, so high now that we were above the clouds. My goodness, it was breathtaking!

The wild iris were incredible, growing in carpets of the most gorgeous shade of blue. Surrounded by the sound of bees and birdsong, we decided this was the perfect spot for our picnic lunch; quite honestly, we could have sat there all day.

The next section of our walk was without doubt the easiest, following a well-defined path through meadows, still climbing but at a far gentler pace now. The landscape was alight with the bright yellow of Spanish broom, underplanted with iris and mountain thyme and the air was full of butterflies.

We came to the ruins of an abandoned village, the sort of place that always make me feel slightly wistful. Most probably, it had been a summer lodging for the vaqueros who drove their cattle up to the higher pastures to graze; the cows are still there but all that is left of the humans are their tumbledown buildings and the whisper of a way of life that has long since gone from that place.

Nature, as it does, had filled the vacuum with sprays of delicate wild roses growing out of the ruins.

Onward, and upwards more steeply again as we climbed towards the highest point of our walk. Note that at this point I was still smiling . . . it’s important to remember that later.

At the top of the pass, we decided it was time to sit for a while again and enjoy the views; well, it would have been rude not to ~ they were simply stunning. We exchanged greetings with a Spanish couple who were walking in the opposite direction; they were the only other human beings we saw on the entire walk. When I said Ponga is quiet, I wasn’t joking.

Every map we have seen of this walk since doing it has shown it as an out-and-back, stopping at this point or taking a while longer to climb right to the summit before following the same path back down to the start.

If only we’d had a crystal ball, then that is exactly what we would have chosen to do because even scrambling up that rocky peak and slithering back down the forest mud gullies would have been a stroll in the park compared to what was to come . . .

I should say that up until now, the route had been fairly well marked with occasional wooden fingerposts and regular enough way markers ~ two horizontal paint lines, one white, one yellow, usually daubed on rocks ~ to keep us on the right track. The problem from this point was that those all but disappeared: we literally lost the path and much of our descent over the next few hours became pure guesswork.

We found ourselves following what we hoped was the right path, only to have to backtrack many times. It was impossible to tell whether we were on the right path or some random cow trail; a few faint footprints amongst the hoofmarks in the dust suggested we were right but in truth, it was others who had been forging their own path, too. In places we had to push through undergrowth in the absence of anything even remotely looking like a path; although by this point I was feeling the heat, I was glad I’d opted to wear my super lightweight summer walking trews rather than shorts.

Eventually, we found a waymarker and hoped we’d picked up the right trail again but trying to find the subsequent ones was like following a will-o’-the -wisp. Once again, we had to retrace our steps and try to find some sort of clue. Luckily, we both have a good sense of direction and knew we had to keep bearing left to get back to our starting point; there are so few roads in Ponga that taking the wrong path down could easily mean ending up many, many miles from the car which wasn’t an idea that really appealed. I was starting to feel slightly disconcerted by the vultures wheeling overhead as if they sensed the possibility of dinner!

I have to admit that I was also starting to feel tired and more than a bit fed up, my sense of humour waning rapidly, so I knew it was time to have a word with myself. This is where those core values are so important! What right did I have to be grumbling when I was so privileged to be out having this incredible adventure in such a wild and beautiful place? Time to ditch the Muttley mutterings and start feeling a sense of gratitude, vitality and wonder once again. Come on, keep going . . . and please smile!

Slowly ~ very slowly ~ we wound our way in more or less the right direction, constantly on the lookout for another marker. The scenery was as beautiful as ever but the shadows were growing longer and we still had miles and miles to go.

When we reached a clearly marked (yippee!) path leading down through woodland, we hoped that from then on things would get better but in fact, the worst was yet to come. Eventually emerging from the shady canopy, we found ourselves high up on the flank of a steep-sided mountain; the path across it was the faintest of lines completely overgrown with vegetation which in places, was higher than my head. Underfoot, it was alarmingly uneven with prutruding rocks here and drops into muddy bogs there, criss-crossed with thick fibrous gorse roots and totally hidden under all that green growth. I literally moved along it one step at a time, constantly feeling in front with my stick to get an idea what was coming ~ like punting without the boat. I lost count of the times I stumbled to my left into gorse bushes but it was preferable to stumbling to my right and falling down the mountainside!

Our progress had now dropped to snail’s pace and there was a collective sinking of hearts as several times we reached what had seemed like the end only to find yet another long stretch ahead of us. I’m not sure it helped that we could now see the village of Taranes again; there was still so obviously a long, long way to go.

In Roger, I have the best of walking companions. He is strong, athletic and sure-footed and rarely fazed by anything. He steps in to help me when he knows I’m struggling (at this point he insisted on carrying my rucksack for a while, walking ahead of me and trying to forge some sort of path through the tick-infested undergrowth), otherwise he lets me get on with things without fussing over me. He stays positive and optimistic long after I’ve lost the will to be either. In short, he makes me braver than I really am and there is no way I would have managed this walk without him. I was so glad he was there!

The rest of the walk is something of a blur. I know we scrambled down an impossibly steep gully to a meadow where a herd of horses was grazing and still had two hours of walking to go. We picked up a track which was blisfully grassy and reasonably flat for a while before deteriorating into a steep and slippery stream bed that made for a difficult downhill of several kilometres. By this stage, for the first time since running a half-marathon nearly three years ago, I was so tired that I was literally having to tell my feet what to do. Thankfully, there were still some beautiful distractions to enjoy.

Now at least we were seeing fairly regular markers along the way but none at the numerous junctions we came to so we just had to make an educated guess each time as to which fork was the right one. I could have turned several cartwheels when we finally met the road back up to Taranes (another climb of two kilometres to the car, but hey, who cares?) except that I was just too pooped to even think about it. The entire walk had taken us almost nine hours and has to be one of the most physically demanding I’ve ever done. Of course, the old lady was no longer sitting on the bench by our car which was a shame because I would have loved to have told her how right she’d been about my stick. As we wearily peeled off our mud-encrusted boots and topped up on food and water before the two-hour drive home, the setting sun silvered the mountains in a majestic light and we smiled to think we’d climbed all the way up there. Tired? Exhausted (bitten, scratched and blistered, too)! Happy? Ecstatic! Going back to Ponga? You bet! 🙂

Dog Days

The dog days are here. In the dark, moonless sky Sirius lopes along brightly at Orion’s heel while under the cloudless blue of day, the land pants in the shimmering heat. Not that it’s anywhere near as hot here as even a short distance south but the increased warmth and prolonged dry spell have brought a palpable shift in perspective, a breath of change across the langourous landscape. South-facing slopes are crisping from green to brown and the high sunlight flattens leaves and bleaches colour from the meadow; not that the crickets and butterflies seem remotely bothered, going about their usual business in the rippling heat of afternoon when others are seeking shade.

No matter how settled the weather might seem, however, we can always be surprised by a sudden wet day that tumbles clouds down over the mountains and brings a soothing freshness to the air. It’s the reason Asturias is so green . . . and the garden revels in it.

In the vegetable patch there is a sense of things just ‘getting on’ with it and yes, in some cases, getting away from us, too. Every fresh, flavoursome, crisp and crunchy mouthful comes from this space now and I love the rough and tumble of it all, the jostling for elbow room in every direction. Our current harvest includes cabbage, calabrese, chard, celery, New Zealand spinach, beetroot, carrots, French beans, onions, spring onions, garlic, courgettes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and rocket.

Note the self-proclaimed ‘Under Gardener’ hard at work on the terrace.

Enjoying a smooth succession of lettuce crops has been a game of trial and error in our time here but this year we have most definitely cracked it, with little patches squeezed into every available nook and cranny. A quick recce recently revealed six different varieties growing in fourteen separate locations: salad days as well as dog days, then.

Oak-leaved and blond romaine lettuce nestled between beans, courgettes and New Zealand spinach (and self-set coriander and Californian poppies, too).

The ‘Purple Teepee’ French beans grown from saved seed are every bit as prolific as they were last year; after a cloud of gorgeous mauve flowers, the plants literally droop under the weight of those purple beans. We are eating them daily hot or cold and I have made several jars of dark, deeply-spiced chutney.

The ‘Latino’ and ‘Black Beauty’ courgette plants have grown to elephantine proportions and the stems and leaves are so tough and prickly that playing Hunt The Courgette has to be done in wellies ~ very glam with shorts! 🙂

With the cucumbers, it’s a case of turn our backs for five minutes and there’s yet another picking. They are officially a gherkin variety so the bigger ones are perfect for a chilled yogurt soup, the smaller ones are being pickled with dill, garlic and chillies.

The tunnel is heaving with plants and is starting to take on a jungly feel; stand still long enough and there’s a danger of being wrapped around by melon plants whose tendrils literally meet us at the door. The afternoon temperature soars in there and it’s a full-time job watering; we’re wishing it had some kind of retractable roof we could peel off for a while!

Not that I’m grumbling when we are already enjoying a tremendous harvest of peppers with aubergines following closely behind. There is also a lush forest of basil which I’ve been freezing in ice cubes so we can enjoy a wack of summer in winter sauces.

We haven’t grown melons for a couple of years so it’s very exciting to have several plump fruit fattening daily; we’re going to have to organise some supports for them very soon.

On the subject of fruit, one of my very favourite seasons has just begun . . .

We had a worse than usual muddle with plant labels in the spring so somehow we’ve ended up with a courgette in the squash patch and a ‘cucumber’ and ‘courgette’ that have both magically transformed into butternut squashes. We have a good crop of the latter and ‘Crown Prince’ coming along plus a tribe of mongrels grown from saved seed in various colourways and patterns ~ blue skinned, yellow and orange smooth and wrinkled, green striped . . . it’s all part of the fun. As for the state of the squash patch, probably the least said, the better. There is a garden under there somewhere.

It’s not all about food, of course, and I’m really thrilled that at long last the sweet peas are flowering. They have been so unbelievably slow this year, it feels like they’ve been in the ground for ever, but they are promising to be the best we’ve grown here and the garden and house are both full of their wonderful perfume.

To wilder things and one of the natural dyes I’ve been planning to try for a while is Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot (daucus carota) and with the verges, orchard and meadow full of the white froth of its lacy caps, the time seemed to have arrived. I’ve seen it described by many people as an invasive weed but I’m not keen on either word, to be honest; in my opinion, it’s merely a survivior or a good doer, and I happen to love the plant in all its various stages of growth wherever it happens to pop up.

Queen Anne’s lace is perfectly edible; the flowers, for instance, can be sprinkled over summer salads as a good source of potassium. However, it looks very like its close cousin, hemlock (conium maculatum), which is highly toxic even in small quantities, so let’s face it, muddling the two could have pretty dire consequences! I wasn’t intending to ingest the contents of my dye pot but even so, I had no desire to be handling anything poisonous; although I was 99% sure that I had the right plant, I spent some time on research before I went out foraging.

This was a timely reminder about the nature of Nature. I know it might seem that I wax lyrical about all that beauty and wonder and bounty but I’m not naive; my attitude towards the natural world is most definitely not some airbrushed, Disneyfied, fluffy bunny love-in. Nature can kill as well as cure, delight and destroy, bring happiness and heartache: there is a very good reason why I chose to put the word respect under the heading of ‘Nature’ in my post about core values! One of several ways to distinguish between these two plants is that Queen Ann’s lace can have a tiny dark red flower nestling in its centre; it isn’t always there so it’s not a foolproof method, but it’s a pretty little find when it is, like a tiny hidden jewel.

At this point, I should come clean and admit that this whole project could really have been called Messing About With Stuff. I have done a lot of reading about natural dyeing techniques and I’m always very grateful to be able to tap into the expertise of others, particularly where that means not making huge mistakes or wasting time and precious resources. That said, I think it’s also important for me to do a certain amount of my own exploring and learning; after all, if I never have a go at breaking a few rules such as using an adjective dye (one that requires a mordant) without a mordant, then what benchmarks do I have to work from? You can read about things until the cows come home but nothing actually beats the experience of doing. So my plan was to start by seeing what sort of colour (if any) I could extract from Queen Ann’s lace without pre-soaking the fibre in a mordant.

At the same time, I decided to play around a bit with heating techniques, too. It’s all well and good spouting about using natural dyestuffs but in the spirit of a truly holistic approach, I need to pay attention to how I use resources like water and energy, too. During the winter months, I can make free with the woodstove heat but using electricity is another matter, so my intention with this little escapade was to use minimal hob time and make the most of the weather by sitting the dye pot out in full sun. Lesson 1: never underestimate solar heat ~ I needed an oven glove to lift the lid after a couple of hours of dye pot sunbathing! The resultant liquid was a pale brown colour, smelling crisply of lemony carrots but not really promising the sorts of yellows I had been reading about.

The fleece I chose to use is a length of Southdown which I bought after seeing flocks of the delightful mop-headed sheep when hiking with Adrienne and Sam across the South Downs (strangely enough). I’ve had it for ages, trying to pluck up the courage to actually get on and do something with it. It’s a soft wool and very elastic which gives a lovely springy bounce to yarns, it doesn’t wet-felt easily and is one of the best fleeces for dyeing so everything about it should be screaming,”Socks, socks, socks, yippee!” but ~ and it’s a big BUT ~ it has a very short staple and is notoriously difficult to spin. There is no point in me fantasising about a fine, consistent, high-twist yarn of the type I’m spinning with ease from the indigo-dyed Kent Romney and silk; given my total lack of confidence and skill in the long-draw technique this fleece demands, I’m expecting a thick, uneven rope full of nepps and slubs which I will (tongue in cheek) label as an ‘art yarn.’ Socks it won’t be, but there will be a future for it somehow, somewhere . . . I hope!

Anyway, back to the dye and a simmer and overnight steep yielded the palest of creams, not exactly disappointing (there is a place in the world for cream yarns, after all) but a bit underwhelming all the same.

Onward and upward into the next stage of messing: bring on the onion skins. This was a bit of an impulse move, to be honest; we had lifted the first crop of onions several days previously and laid them out to dry in the sun and when the time came to start cleaning them up for storage, it seemed a pity to consign the outer skins to the compost heap straight away. Another simmer and suddenly the dye pot was looking a lot more exciting!

Ah, the colour this yielded in the fleece was completely gorgeous. I know it isn’t fast and will fade like summer snow but there’s no harm in enjoying it for the time being. There’s a good chance it will end up having a dip in my next indigo pot, anyway (if you’re messing about, then really mess about, I say) so the future will be bright in blues and greens, if not orange.

On the subject of blues and greens, I had so much fun and enjoyment from sewing a nightie from a fabric remnant recently that I’ve pushed the boat out and bought my first length of proper dressmaking material in twelve years. It might seem a bit odd for someone who lives in Spain but I only have one sundress to my name, partly because I tend to wear shorts and partly because I like to wear clothes until they fall apart before replacing them. My old faithful hippy-style tie-dyed crushed cotton number is seriously on its last legs, breaking out in little holes that just can’t be mended because the fabric is so thin. I used it to make a bodice pattern for the nightie so its spirit will go on and although I’m still wearing it, I know its days are numbered.

My ancient dress: the bodice is pulled in by ties at the back when I wear it, but the width was just perfect for a loose-fitting nightie pattern.

Playing with indigo had me thinking about all things batik, so I couldn’t resist a 100% quality cotton in fresh blues and greens; mmm, the colours are yummy. I don’t have a pattern and I’m not feeling brave enough to draft my own for this project so I’m planning to have a crack at a no-pattern kaftan. https://www.thestitchsisters.co.uk/diy-kaftan-free-tutorial-no-pattern/ I love the idea of creating a garment so simply constructed from rectangles without any zips, buttons or other fiddly fastenings, cool and flowing yet looking shaped and fitted.

So with the garden happily doing its own thing, I can set up my sewing machine in the shade of the sunbrella once again and indulge in a little summertime sewing. Dog days? Happy days! 🙂

If music be the food of love

The photos in this post come from two recent walks, one in the wild mountains of Ponga Natural Park and the other to the beautiful Cascada del Cioyo.

When we last lived in Wales, our neighbour Alwenna walked the lanes every day in all weathers and, regardless of whether she was striding out purposefully or gently meandering along, we always knew where she was because as she walked, she sang. Not some quiet, self-conscious humming to herself, but a full-blown belting out of tunes at the top of her (very tuneful) voice which never failed to make me smile. It was a wonderful outpouring of happiness and the sheer joy of being alive and it has floated back into my memory this week as I have been rediscovering the delights of playing a recorder.

Now I promise I am not going to become a recorder bore; far from it, I need to put time and effort into practising rather than writing about it. However, I wanted to dedicate a post to it because I think what I’m doing sits so well with my approach to and belief in a simple life. I think it’s vitally important ~ as well as massively rewarding ~ to pursue new interests and learn fresh skills and knowledge throughout life; it’s a positive, optimistic and meaningful thing and in this day and age, when we are all too aware of the necessity of keeping our brains busy, stimulated and healthy then anything that forces us to build new neural pathways is surely a worthwhile activity.

When it comes to taking up new interests or trying different things, these days we are blessed with an almost overwhelming choice but I would like to fly the flag here for the benefits of revisiting an old pastime rather than always feeling the need to jump in at the deep end of something bright and shiny. It’s a well-known fact that in our modern western society, countless attics, sheds and garages heave with the evidence of abandoned hobbies, of kit and equipment bought in the first flush of excitement and quickly dumped as the novelty wears off, or the activity becomes too costly in terms of money, time or effort. One of the great plus points of blowing the dust off an old interest is that you know, to some degree at least, what to expect.

Like many children of my generation, my first foray into the world of making music was being taught the rudiments of recorder playing by school staff generous enough to spend their lunch break with a group of excruciating little squeakers! From there my love of music grew through singing and a (mercifully) short flirtation with the violin before settling on the guitar as my ‘thing.’ I was lucky enough to have a few terms of lessons but I’ve never really developed my skills much beyond a basic level so that is something I’m determined to put right. I have a very beautiful steel-stringed acoustic guitar which I am guilty of neglecting but my plan is to right that wrong . . . by learning to play the recorder again (obviously 🙂 ).

So why not just go straight to my guitar? Well, part of the problem is I have spent so many years using guitar tab and the same old strumming and picking patterns that I have forgotten about the complexities of reading music from a manuscript and all the associated symbolism and language that goes with it; I feel the need to sharpen those skills first by really getting back to basics in the sure knowledge that it will then inspire me to work on improving my guitar playing, too. To that end, I am approaching the recorder with total humility like a complete beginner, paying much attention to things like posture, breath and articulation ~ the sorts of niceties I was happy to ignore as a child. I’m taking time to work carefully through the excellent and very human video tutorials by the hugely talented Sarah Jeffery of Team Recorder and making sure that I practise at least once a day, over and over until I feel I’ve really cracked it.

That said, there are many benefits to being an adult ‘re-learner.’ For a start, I can read notation on a stave without any trouble so I don’t have to learn that from scratch. Of the 27 notes possible on my recorder (according to the fingering chart) I can already play 21 so I am choosing pieces of music which will allow me to add one new note at a time ~ although I sincerely doubt I will ever be able to hit the highest ones. At least I don’t have to drive myself or anyone else mad with constant repeats of ‘Three Blind Mice!’ Having spent several decades listening to and enjoying a wide variety of music and having been lucky enough to experience a wealth of live performances in many styles, I have a secure understanding that music is based on a number of elements and is not just a smattering of notes tooted out at the same speed and volume.

As an adult, I also now have far more discipline to apply myself to getting things right. Something I realise very clearly is that at least 95% of the music I’ve ever made has been by ear; let me hear someone sing or play a phrase and I can copy it fairly accurately but give me a piece to sight read and I’m in deep doo-doo because in all honesty, I’ve been winging it forever. I’m not sure whether I was too fidgety, distracted or idle (possibly all three?) but I have never, ever had a proper understanding of note value, finding far more gratification in the names of things like minim or demisemiquaver than in actually doing the maths in each bar of music. Well, that has to stop and sorting it all out in my head feels like some pretty effective brain gym, that’s for sure! What is wonderful is that there are many online sites where I can download free tunes but also play along with an accompaniment and listen to someone else play, so I can have a crack at it on my own first then check against the correct model. Progress is slow . . . but at least it is progress.

Something I am really enjoying is brushing up on all those wonderful terms that add such important information to a piece of music: accelerando, rallentando, glissando, crescendo, fortissimo . . . rolling off my tongue in those delightfully dramatic Italian words. Being me, I’m having a lot of fun making connections with Spanish so andante obviously shares the same root as andar (to walk) and allegro is sister to one of my favourite Spanish words, alegría (joy).

Meanwhile, back to the actual playing and as I enjoy a wide range of different types and styles of music, I’m having fun dipping in and out of all sorts of bits and pieces: English and Welsh folk, baroque, ragtime, blues, film themes . . . but without doubt, the pieces I’m enjoying the most at the moment are Irish jigs. They are fast and furious and I’m nowhere near up to speed and still croaking out the high notes like a strangled Clanger but there is something just so energetic and vibrant and downright joyful about traditional music that brings people together and makes them want to dance.

I’ve made a start on building a repertoire of Celtic tunes, not just with a lively toe-tapping ceilidh vibe but those more haunting and mournful melodies, too. For me, this is a style of music that is truly evocative of bleak windswept landscapes under open skies, the aching green of woodland glades, the rocky strongholds of eagle-haunted mountain tops or the booming timpani of waves along a wild coastline. Northern Spain has much in common with Brittany and the Celtic lands of the British Isles ~ and not just the fact that it rains a lot! There is a strong sense of shared history (Castro de Coaña, a Celtic settlement a short trip from home, is a fascinating place to visit) and common culture in terms of art work, traditions, folklore and of course, music. Indeed, I am practising a piece of traditional Asturian flute music called ‘Ancestros’ which could quite easily have hailed from any of those other countries, so similar is it in style and sweet, sad melody.

I love the idea of the spirit of landscape and nature being captured and reflected in music. Let’s face it, nature itself bursts with its own wild tunes and I like nothing better than to close my eyes and listen: sitting by the Cascada del Cioyo, my ears feasted on the pulsating rhythm and crashing of white water against rock, the deep moody notes of the plunge pool, the staccato of a wren underpinning the mellifluous legato of blackcap, and the breeze dripping notes like liquid silver through the leaves.

It was all there and I couldn’t hope to better it; not that I want to, but I do love the idea of taking my recorder into the woods and simply playing from the heart for pure pleasure. It might seem a complete contradiction to the disciplined study I’m making myself do, but I think life should be a balance. After all, music has been an oral tradition for most of its existence and sitting under the leafy sunlit canopies surrounded by the buzz of life, I think I should be allowed to dispense with sheet music and metronomes just for a while. I’ve learned how to mute my recorder, too, so I can sit and ‘feel’ what I’m playing without disturbing the peace of all those I share this precious space with.

This idea brings to mind the concept of awen, a very lovely Welsh word (Cornish and Breton, too, I believe) which has no precise English correspondence but roughly translates as ‘flowing inspiration.’ It’s much invoked by those who practise modern Druidry but I believe it can be used by anyone and applied to anyone as a beautiful expression of the spark that ignites the energy and enthusiasm of a creative activity. Although traditionally referring to poetry, I think it’s completely appropriate to recognise that flow of inspiration in many other areas, tangible and abstract ~ music, art, dance, handicrafts of all kinds, cookery, gardening, architecture, scientific enquiry, mathematical reasoning, building relationships . . . in short, any activity that brings head, heart and hands together in a vibrant celebration of creativity.

It’s in everyone, and I think there is something very liberating and exhilarating at being allowed and encouraged to express it; it doesn’t matter if you’re not very good at something (trust me, I am never going to be a talented musician) because that’s not what this is about. How often do we stop ourselves from trying something new or different or wacky because we lack confidence or have doubts or are worried . . . about what? That we’re going to fail or be judged or ridiculed? Well, who cares? In lives that can be so overstuffed with busyness and stress and in what are currently very strange and troubled times, I believe more than ever there’s a need to let our hair down, go for it and above all, have fun. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve ended up in fits of laughter with my recorder over the last week. Regret about chances not taken and things not done must be one of the saddest of all human emotions so, go on ~ blow the cobwebs off that old musical instrument, paintbox, set of tools, tennis racquet or whatever, pick up a pen or a needle or a lump of clay, take a lesson in dancing salsa or metalwork or Japanese or anything that appeals to you. Do it. Smile, laugh, enjoy. What greater celebration of the gift of life can there be? 🙂

More meanderings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The happy blues

Perhaps the saddest part for me of the whole coronavirus situation is the cancellation of the plans we had made to spend time together with family, here in Asturias as well as in the UK and Norway. Now, I am not whingeing because many people have suffered (and continue to suffer) terribly and we and our loved ones are at least safe and well. The milestones we were set to celebrate won’t come round again but at least once it is all over, we will hopefully be able to catch up with each other again in a joyful celebration of life and love. On the plus side, though, it has been lovely to have very regular video chats with our grandchildren and to help out a little with their homeschooling. Weekly Spanish lessons with Ben, William and Evan are a delight and let me indulge in all the best bits of teaching without any of the headaches; they also remind me how scarily quickly and effortlessly young children learn new things! When Annie had finished her unit of work on rainbows and became interested in indigo, we had a great chat about natural dyeing, and as she and Matthew went off to collect bits of sheep’s wool to dye and weave, I realised this was the nudge I needed to get back to some dyeing, too.

What I realised is that it has been many months since I shared any woolly happenings on my blog; it isn’t because I haven’t been doing anything, just not writing about them so perhaps it’s time for a quick catch-up. Last year for me was all about exploring the possibilities of using natural materials in dyeing, in particular substantive dyes that require no mordant but can be modified in an alkali (washing soda) or acid (citric acid) bath to give a range of shades. Green walnut leaves – of which we have an abundance – gave some beautiful coffee and cream tones in wool and silk.

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Blended together on the hand carders, they made rolags that looked like spun sugar.

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The fibre worked up beautifully into a marled yarn which I wanted to use to make a scarf as a gift, something light and feminine without being twee. As I hate am not a fan of lace knitting, I opted for crochet and a variation on trellis stitch which I hoped would work up well into the garment I had envisaged . . . and that’s where I left the story.

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Mmm, let’s just say things went downhill from there. Several centimetres in and I was starting to feel very unhappy with what I was creating, it was so clumpy and awkward and just felt wrong. Even with the most diligent of blocking to stretch those holes out, I could tell it would still be too ‘heavy’ somehow; I wanted the recipient to feel softly wrapped and cosseted in those subtle walnut hues running through Merino and silk, not like she was wearing the complete tree round her neck. Time for Plan B and here is where my heart sank into my boots because I knew that knitting had to be the answer for this particular yarn. No way could I face a long lacy scarf project, which would take me at least 250 years to finish, and thankfully there wasn’t enough yardage for a shawl so I opted for a happy medium in the form of a shawlette scarf. Yes, it meant a circular needle and several hundred stitches (aaaaaargh!) but the lace border was only worked over sixteen rows and after that pain, I knew the short rows in stocking stitch would be plain sailing, just like turning a giant sock heel. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a few ‘moments’ with this knitting and I certainly ended up having to unpick several times . . . but I managed it and was pretty chuffed with the result which suited the yarn so much better. Excuse my less-than-glamorous background in the photos, I don’t have blocking boards so I just pin the damp garment to an old bath towel.

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Well, I’m feeling a tad friendlier towards lace knitting now but I haven’t quite mustered the courage to do something similar to the fibres I dyed with madder. All in good time.

Away from dyeing and something else I decided to try for the first time is felting; I have no idea why it has taken me so long to get round to this, but with Annie and William’s fifth birthdays looming, I was wracking my brain for gift ideas and thought perhaps a little felted bag full of goodies might be a hit. I started with Annie’s bag in her favourite purple shot through with turquoise, a batch of Kent Romney that had had a tough time in the acid dye bath and certainly didn’t lend itself to socks. I didn’t bother with a pattern, just knitted a long rectangle in stocking stitch with garter stitch borders at each end, and seamed the sides to make a bag, adding a garter stitch strap. I know many people swear by felting in the washing machine but I passed on that one for two reasons: first, I never use a hot wash for eco reasons and the idea of doing so for a little woolly bag didn’t sit comfortably with my green principles, also because I love the hands-on aspect of activities like this and wanted to see the felting process as it happened to better understand it. It was so simple: I poured very hot water from the stove kettle into a bowl, added a few drops of Ecover washing-up liquid and (wearing rubber gloves) beat and pummelled the poor bag to a pulp. Wow! It was a fascinating process to watch as the stitches closed up to make a wonderfully thick and soft felt, with just enough definition left in the garter stitch sections to add contrast. On a roll, I got stuck in with William’s blend of red, orange and yellow Shetland, then decided to have a bit of fun and play around with flowers and butterflies as a finishing touch. I stuffed the bags with seeds ~ they are both passionate little gardeners ~ and chocolate to sustain them in their planting escapades. What a great activity! The sequel is in the pipeline . . .

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. . . and this is where the indigo moment comes in, because having seen Annie’s bag, Matthew immediately requested one for himself, but could it be blue, please? Well, how can a granny refuse? I’ve only had the indigo for ten years (possibly longer) so it really was time to get on with it. As luck would have it, Roger had just finished building the extension to the terrace which meant there was plenty of room to set myself up with an outdoor workshop. Mmm, there was inspiration in that sky, too.

As with all new activities, I like to do a lot of background reading and research before jumping in; true, I love the experimentation and exploration and the excitement of the unknown but that has to be measured against a recklessness that could result in wasting expensive and precious resources. As with so many other things, though, it seemed the more people I turned to, the more conflicting advice I found. For instance, the temperature of the indigo vat: it should be heated and kept at a constant 50 °C throughout . . . no, make that blood heat with a warm-up only if needed . . . no, lukewarm will do, no need to heat at all. Well, excuse me, but in my humble opinion, that’s quite a difference! I read time and time again how essential it is not to stir or agitate the vat as that introduces oxygen, only to find a video clip of a lady who whipped hers into an incredible vortex, stirring crazily one way then the other around the pot. Then there’s the whole dipping scene: is it one minute, five, or fifteen? Honestly, my brain was spinning like an indigo whirlpool itself. Something that most folks seemed agreed on was what a messy business it is and that I could expect to be blue all over by the time I’d finished ~ my clothes, shoes, face, hair, the lot. That had me thinking that anyone who indulged in naked dyeing would end up looking like a woad-daubed ancient Briton but really my main concern was not to create an abstract in blue all over Roger’s carefully laid slates!

In trying to cut through the confusion, I opted to loosely follow the method used by Jenny Dean in her book Colours From Nature, by carefully stirring my indigo crystals, washing soda (the vat needs to be alkaline so the indigo will dissolve) and finally some colour run remover into a pot of hand-hot water. The colour run remover contains sodium hydrosulphite, a chemical reducing agent that removes oxygen from the vat and allows ‘indigo blue’ to convert to ‘indigo white’ ~ the science behind this process and all the activity at molecular level is fascinating stuff! Admittedly, it’s the kind of chemical I try to avoid using but the natural alternative of fermented urine somehow didn’t appeal. I know people use all sorts of fruit ferments, too, but in this first go I felt it was essential to get a proper grasp of how it all works before experimenting with that kind of thing. I put the lid on the pot and left it sitting in the sunshine for an hour or so, by which time it had formed a blue skin over yellowy-green liquid and had started to blow a few bubbles; lots of people talk about needing a large ‘flower’ of bubbles blooming in the vat but interestingly, Jenny Dean doesn’t mention it at all. Well, did I need it to bloom or not? Does it have to be a big ‘flower’ or would a small ‘bud’ suffice? Good grief, here we go again . . .

What the heck, I decided it was time to go for it anyway and slipped in a wetted skein of Merino, replaced the lid and left it for fifteen minutes.

The one thing that all experts seem to be agreed on is that indigo dyeing can’t be rushed; like raising children or making mayonnaise, it requires time, patience and lots of love. While my vat was brewing in the sunshine, I pottered about doing a bit of light gardening then decided that the extra space on the new-look terrace was just perfect for my spinning wheel and what better way to pass the time and celebrate the solstice than working with some naturally-dyed fibre in the Spanish sunshine?

Last year, I dyed some Merino in a pot of French marigold flowers in true rustic style, simply tossing the lot into the dye pot together. After a bit of tweaking with modifiers, I ended up with two distinct shades of yellow.

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I always think the wool looks a bit tortured after its time in the pot, as though the effort to not do what comes naturally and turn to felt leaves it exhausted and wrung out. I wasn’t planning on blending it with anything else, but felt a little fluffing up on the carders would help and would add a bit of air and loft to the finished yarn. Like the walnut-dyed wool, I was amazed by the range of subtle shades there are within each colour, so much prettier and effective than the solid colour of synthetic dyes. As an added bonus, there is also the faintest scent of flowers, too. Lovely.

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For spinning purposes, I’m just pulling random rolags out of my basket so that the finished yarn will be a mix of all the shades together. So far, so good, and possibly another little bag in the making.

Meanwhile, back to Indigo World and the moment of truth once the fifteen minutes were up. Having read absolutely everywhere that the wool needed to be exposed to the air for at least twenty minutes to allow the colour to fully develop, I assumed (completely wrongly, as it turned out) that I would have plenty of time to rinse the wool in cold water, peg it on the line, ditch my gloves, grab the camera and take a series of time lapse photos to capture the colour change. Ha, not a chance! It emerged yellow from the pot and had turned to a gorgeous sea green before it even hit the rinsing water. (I’d like to reassure anyone who might be slightly freaked out by my knees that I wasn’t trying the skyclad, woad-painted thing ~ it was hot so I was wearing shorts. Honest!)

By the time I had walked the few steps to the washing line, the colour had changed again into a beautiful denim blue, exactly the shade I had been hoping for. It was like a magical alchemy, over in seconds, but it had me totally spellbound.

Well, after that I was on a roll and as I’ve been spinning plain skeins for just such an occasion, I threw in a couple of batches of Jacobs and a skein of Kent Romney blended with kid mohair. I messed about with shorter times in the pot and a couple of re-dips, ending up with a range of subtle shade differences that made me very, very happy.

As there was still life in the indigo vat, I then tried a length of Jacobs fleece top and some tussah silk. Oh, those colour variations! If I could turn a back flip, I would have done . . . although possibly on the side of a mountain there could have been dire consequences with that one.

So, what next? Well, I have plenty of new projects waiting in the wings. I can really see the possibilities of creating some fabulous greens by dipping yellow yarn in indigo; I don’t have any French marigolds this year but masses of feverfew and Queen Anne’s lace, both of which are said to yield some pleasing yellow shades. In fact, there’s still a long list of plant materials on our patch which give substantial dyes to experiment with, including things like eucalyptus, heather and sage. I’m currently researching the use of bramble leaves as a tannin-rich mordant; they were used historically which is the sort of thing I find interesting and we certainly have no shortage here, although I think they would add brown to the mix so I would need to choose the dye materials carefully. I have a few rusty nails steeping in a jar of water and vinegar (is there no end to these dark arts?) to make an iron mordant water which should help to enhance colour fastness; iron deepens or ‘saddens’ colours but there’s nothing sad about the possibility of using it to yield a deep purple dye from madder. Lots to do . . . I think my main problem is going to be running out of fleece! For now, though, I’m just very happy singing the blues. 🙂

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! 🙂

How can you buy the sky?

Asturias is a land of contrasts: soaring, snow-capped peaks and shining ribbons of sandy beaches; chattering mountain streams and wide, lazy estuaries; lush green meadows spangled with flowers and a dramatic coastline, jagged and wave-beaten; the timeless tranquility of tiny, remote villages and the vibrant buzz of modern cities. Then, of course, there is the weather. Perhaps it is something contrary in my nature, or maybe because I’m British and ‘weather’ is in my blood, but I love the fickle spirit that is the Asturian climate. There is something energising about the speed and quality of changes, of how a rain-drenched landscape shrouded in cloud is transformed to a vista of green mountains printed in sharp relief against the clearest and bluest of skies in what seems like a matter of moments. One day, it’s all wellies and waterproofs, the next sandals and suncream. It’s a teasing unpredictability that breeds resilience, pragmatism and acceptance: life goes on, whatever. It’s only weather, after all.

Friday
Saturday
Sunday

At this time of year, we spend most of our time outside; we eat our meals out there and only drift into the house in the evening as the sun sinks in a dramatic blaze behind the mountain opposite. Once the new horreo floor is finished (something we can’t do until we are allowed to visit a builders’ merchants again), we will even be able to stay out in the pouring rain. At the moment, though, a wet evening does mean being indoors and last week, one such occasion saw us watching a free online film called Project Wild Thing. This had been recommended to me (thank you, Farn!) after I wrote a couple of posts back about how important I think it is for children to spend time playing and exploring outdoors.

It was an interesting film which raised several pertinent issues but what struck me most was how the driving force in the author’s efforts to connect children to nature was based on branding. I realised just how pervasive and powerful branding and advertising are in our society . . . but honestly, how did things become so complicated? How can you possibly ‘brand’ nature? and why on earth should it be necessary? (Please bear in mind, this is not in any way a criticism of the film; indeed, I had nothing but respect and admiration for the author’s intentions and efforts in trying to do a very good thing.)

Now I admit that I am definitely the wrong person to be asking or answering these questions as I am undoubtedly biased. First, the natural world is such a fundamental part of my life and being that I would find it impossible to extricate myself from its wonderfully beguiling tangle. I cannot imagine a life not spent outdoors and I am truly blessed in being able to indulge myself every day; my heart has gone out in recent weeks to all those who have been or still are totally confined to indoor spaces.

Second, I am a marketing company’s nightmare; I detest shopping, I feel no need to buy or accumulate ‘stuff’ and adverts bounce off me like hailstones on the roof. If I’m honest, I don’t even notice them; I am, in fact, completely blind to branding. Still, putting my prejudices aside, I really can’t understand why for one moment nature should need to be branded in order to make it appeal to children and the adults in their lives. This is not a consumable, it’s not the latest whizz-bang gizmo or this season’s must-have – it’s nature, for crying out loud. It just is.

The crucial point for me is that we shouldn’t have to polish and airbrush the natural world, blow it up on hoardings, flaunt it on the front of t-shirts or hand it out in shiny leaflets in order to whet people’s appetite. Nature is an incredible, astonishing, precious, fickle, dangerous, mind-blowing thing; it can’t be tamed or boxed or packaged or ordered online. We don’t need to buy it or buy into it. It’s out there – everywhere- if we just take the time to look. Turn your face upwards to the splatter of raindrops or the kiss of sunshine and you’re acknowledging nature’s presence. It’s really that simple. Isn’t it?

The ironic thing is, experience has taught me that children will revel in the simplicity of nature when given the chance to do so. As a primary school teacher, I would cart my class off to look round a zoo or aquarium where they could watch exotic species living in very contrived environments but without exception, they had far more fun and engagement doing bug hunts or wildflower sampling only a few steps from the classroom door. The best school ‘trips’ we ever had were the ones where we stayed at school and spent the day building dens, climbing trees and cooking over a campfire. Children will find a whole world in the eye of a daisy or the swirl of a snail’s shell if we just let them.

As if to prove a point – to myself, at least! – I decided to take my camera for a wellies-and-waterproof wander in the rain, trying to capture some basic images that had nothing whatsoever to do with branding. I wanted nature to sell itself simply by being, to prove that there is infinite wonder in the ordinary that far surpasses staged professional photo shoots of children cuddling tame frogs. The woods in the rain at this time of year draw me like a magnet; there is such a sparkling freshness to the air and I am captivated by the layer upon layer of green, all that burgeoing, verdant growth. True, in rainy weather the light level is relatively low and the backdrop of a china blue sky unavailable, but there is magic in that rain-spattered world. All the photos in this post apart from the first, third and fourth were taken on that walk and at no point was I more than a ten-minute leisurely stroll from home.

It worries me sometimes where I ‘go’ on these little ventures, becoming so absorbed in everything that I see that I lose all track of time or place . . . but that, I believe, is the whole point. I suppose some people would call it mindfulness, that complete focus on a single point, being ‘in the moment’ to the exclusion of all else but really, you can call it whatever you like. The previous day, I had wandered into the wood for a leg stretch (without the camera) and rounding a bend in the path, I saw a roe deer just a stone’s throw ahead of me. Thanks to a kind wind direction, she didn’t sense me despite my bright red waterproof coat and I was able to stand and watch her grooming and grazing for many minutes, before tiptoeing away; I didn’t want to carry on in case she had a fawn lying in the undergrowth nearby which is perfectly possible at this time of year. I am lucky enough to have seen deer in the wild many, many times but the sheer magic and wonder of watching a wild animal like this is never tarnished; standing stock still, hardly daring to breathe and being wholly taken up by this privileged window on a wild world, it’s a moment to treasure. It’s priceless, in fact.

The truly gratifying part is that such precious experiences don’t have to involve large mammals, either; there is so much that is extraordinary to be discovered in the ordinary. There is a wealth of wonder to be had watching the purposeful march of an ant trail, the expert weaving of a spider, the sing-preen-sing choreography of a garden robin. It is possible to be totally captivated by the play of dappled light through a tracery of leaves, the movement of water over shiny pebbles, the scudding of broken clouds across a windswept sky. There are great secrets hidden in miniature forests of moss, the pleated underskirts of mushrooms, the complex labrythine centre of a flower.

When you can capture the wash of waves in a seashell or a rainbow in a puddle, when you can feel the gentle tickle of a feather on your cheek, the soft whisper of snowflakes on your eyelashes, the rough fissures of bark or silky trickle of sand or sticky gloop of mud at your fingertips, you don’t need a logo or a slogan or a brand. Connecting with the natural world is as simple as rolling down a grassy bank, kicking up a pile of autumn leaves or tasting the sweet-sour burst of berry juice on purpled tongues . . . and I’m not just talking about children!

It comes as no surprise to me – in fact, I’m delighted – that doctors are increasingly ‘prescribing’ a dose of nature for a wide range of illnesses as an alternative therapy to drugs. The benefits to many aspects of our physical and mental health of exposure to fresh air and sunlight have been well-researched and documented; add time spent moving or simply sitting, observing, enjoying, being curious – whether in a wild, rural location, a suburban garden or a city park – and we have a wonderful recipe for well-being. It’s very, very simple. It’s totally free. Let’s get out there and enjoy it, young and old alike. No branding needed. No adverts required. 🙂