Woodlands and other wanderings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotlight on Ponga #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! 🙂

Sweet liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair weather February

Strictly speaking, we are in the middle of winter and yet, here in this pretty corner of Asturias, it feels like anything but. Somehow it seems that November and January changed places this time round; even the oldest locals say they can never remember a November so wet, with weeks of grey gloom punctuated by violent storms, a complete contrast to the sort of extended ‘summer melting into autumn’ we have experienced in previous years. It might be a bit topsy-turvy but we have been making up for the lack of sunshine and warmth in recent weeks and I am not complaining. The mornings are gorgeous and I find myself drawn outside, pyjama-clad and clutching my first mug of tea, to watch the sunrise; tiny bats whirr through the garden on their last rounds as the nocturnal beeping midwife toads hand over to a raucous chorus of birds. The air smells of sweet grass and spring flowers. It is completely beautiful.

Backtracking a little and the second week of January saw us with fingers tightly crossed for a spell of good weather for Sam and Adrienne’s visit from Norway, both to give us all the chance to get out and do some walking and to allow them to top up their light and vitamin D levels. We weren’t disappointed! It was a pleasure to pack up a picnic and head off on several walking adventures. I loved the Ruta de las Xanas where we climbed a steep and stunning – if vertiginous! – gorge, emerging at the top into sweeping, sunlit meadows. The dog behind us in the photo is a mastín, traditionally raised with sheep from puppyhood and living with them in the fields to guard against wolves. This one had tried to persuade us to part with our picnic and, having failed, decided to sleep off her imaginary lunch in the shade rather than go back to watching over her flock.

A little further on, we passed through Pedrovaya, such a typically peaceful Asturian village with its narrow streets, ancient horreos and assorted cats.

The circular walk took us back to our starting point through beautiful rolling countryside; with the warmth of the sun on our faces and the verges studded with primroses and violets, it was hard to believe this was January – the only thing missing were swallows!

The lovely weather has continued into February and we find ourselves living an almost complete outdoor life once again. The garden has recovered from the bashing it took in the November storms and it is good to see some colour back again – how I have missed those flowers! The Japanese quince, stripped totally bare of every leaf and flower bud, are now blooming in their full glory; we have two pink ones and a deep red, stunning against the blue sky and literally buzzing with bumble bees.

There is a wonderful sense of everything waking up and stretching in a joyful salute to the sun. The banks and verges are spangled with daisies and celandines, violets, primroses and starry wild strawberry flowers; narcissi are unfurling their fat buds, some revealing dainty white flowers with a heavenly scent, others far less subtle in a froth of yellow frills. There is every chance we will have a dose of winter yet but for now, spring is very definitely in the air.

It’s always a job at this time of year to sit on my hands and not rush into planting everything in the garden but at least there have been plenty of things to keep me out of mischief. Roger has been back on logging duty and – brave man that he is – pruning the kiwi. Oh my goodness, what a job that is! In keeping with our policy of returning everything organic to the land, we are chopping the prunings and piling them up for compost but there seems to be no end to them and there are still several more days’ worth of chopping to come. Away from Kiwi World, it has been a joy to have my hands in the earth once again.

I have been planting out ‘Barletta’ onions, the big silverskinned variety so popular here, and also a row of ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ first early peas to follow on from the ‘Douce Provence’ peas sown last autumn; the latter are doing that strange thing of flowering before they’ve put on much height but if past years are anything to go by, they will shoot up suddenly and produce a heavy crop – the bees are certainly doing their bit to help on that score.

We’ve dusted off the propagator and planted aubergines, sweet peppers and chillies, and started off trays of tomatoes, lettuce and summer cabbage in the polytunnel. I’ve also sown a pot of New Zealand spinach, it failed to germinate in the ground last year so I’m trying Plan B now; I’ve been told by those in the know that once it’s established, we’ll have it forever so I’m hoping for good things. The salad and oriental leaves in the tunnel have reached jungle proportions and we’ve had the first picking of baby spring onions from there this week, too. Who says winter salads are boring?

On the same subject, the clever idea I had of sowing a patch of outdoor salad leaves in the autumn all went to pot when my poor seedlings were completely vaporised in the mother of all hailstorms (this is where a polytunnel has a distinct advantage . . . as long as it doesn’t get blown off down the valley, of course. 🙂 ). What a happy, happy moment, then, to discover this week that some of the brave little troopers have fought back: to date, half a dozen winter lettuce (‘Arctic King’, I think) and a modest patch of mustards and mizunas. What little stars they are.

Happiness has also come in the shape of oodles and oodles of purple sprouting broccoli. Forgive me if I repeat myself every year but I adore the stuff and will be in PSB heaven for the next few weeks, eating it daily in as many ways as is humanly possible. I think this is the best crop we have ever had and personally I’m putting it down to the snug blanket of green manure planted underneath it.

Well okay, maybe it has nothing at all to do with green manure but I rate the whole ‘no bare earth’ thing so much that I am planning another season of the same. Not that it will require too much thought as nature seems to be doing a pretty good job without any help and a drift of soft blue phacelia flowers to drive the bees to distraction is imminent. The feathery leaves of volunteers are popping up all over, even squeezing themselves into tight spaces like the patch of beetroot below. Other people may see it as mess, I only see beauty.

I am currently reading Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual and I am completely engrossed in his take on permaculture in a temperate climate. Here is a book I shall be dipping into for the rest of my life and I am already feeling inspired to try many new things in the coming months and years as well as revisit or simply revel in old ones. For instance, this week I was inspired by my reading to wear my glasses in the garden. That might sound slightly ridiculous but I honestly resent my specs; I know I’m lucky to have them and they are essential for reading and fine work but otherwise I hate every moment they spend perched on my nose so I never wear them unless I have to. However, what a fascinating time I had looking at things close up and properly: the tiny particles and minute life forms in our soil, the golden ratio spiral in a snail’s shell, the intricate network of veins in petal and leaf, the woody wrinkles of a peach stone, the tiny hairs on stems and roots, the infinite shades of colour and nuance of pattern all around me. All this wonder already and I still have 300 pages to go . . .

For us, good weather and lighter evenings can only mean one thing: time to dust off the barbecue. Cooking outside is one of our favourite things to do and it frustrates me that barbecues are so often seen as a summer-only activity, when they can be immensely enjoyable all the year round. In fact, some of the best barbecues we have ever enjoyed have been in the middle of winter. Well, why not? Apart from anything else, it’s a great way of cooking our food on ‘free’ heat as we always use wood from prunings, coupled with walnut shells and a few bits of eucalyptus for sweet-scented smoke. Also, with the provenance of charcoal being an important environmental issue, we can be sure that we are not contributing to the destruction of precious tropical forests whilst cooking our dinner.

Cooking over wood is slightly trickier than charcoal as it doesn’t hold its heat for as long but it doesn’t take much to get used to and certainly doesn’t limit the culinary possibilities. For our first barbecue of the year we opted for local pork which we marinated in olive oil, wine, garlic and herbs before cooking as kebabs and serving with homemade bread and a selection of salads. As ‘flexitarians’ we often have a veggie barbie, too, especially in summer when a rack of aubergines, peppers, tomatoes and courgettes really hits the spot and with plenty of homemade hummus, breads, salads and dips we don’t ever miss the meat. One of our favourite tricks – learnt from a Cypriot friend – is to barbecue foil parcels of feta cheese, sliced tomato (homegrown and sun-drenched, preferably), fresh oregano and a drizzle of olive oil, fabulous as a starter to nibble at while everything else cooks. Go on, try it. It’s amazing. Just be careful not to burn your mouth! 🙂

The road less travelled

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

Edward Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to dye happy

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.

Frank Lloyd Wright

One of the unexpected consequences of deciding to start blogging when we lived in France six years ago is the pleasure I have developed in taking pictures. I am not a very good photographer but I love wandering about snapping this and that and it’s amazing just how many of my posts start with a set of photos – or maybe even a single one – rather than an event or idea. For me, it’s an ongoing exploration of a new world of creativity, albeit at a very basic level; no doubt there are zillions of settings on the camera I haven’t discovered yet and don’t even get me started on Photoshop and the like. Like so many of the practical activities I enjoy, it’s simply about being in the moment and having fun. My current obsession is capturing skies.

With this in mind, having been granted permission to walk in the stunning Muniellos Nature Reserve once again last week, the camera was the first thing packed in my rucksack. As luck would have it, the battery ran out the day before so we could charge it fully in readiness for what I hoped would be some beautiful shots during our 20 kilometre walk. We can’t have been more than a couple of hundred metres along the path before the first photographic opportunity presented itself and . . . disaster! The camera wouldn’t work. There wasn’t so much as a spark of life. Nothing. Nada. Dead as a dodo. Not even all the jiggling and poking and manly checking of things mechanical by Roger could coax it back into life (it transpired the battery had somehow discharged itself overnight which theoretically it isn’t supposed to do.) Well, darn it. Needless to say, apart from hoping for some lovely photos to compare with our first walk here last June, there was an embryonic blog post taking shape in my hind brain and now it would have to be ditched.

Or would it? On reflection, I decided I would go ahead anyway for two reasons. The first is that I can recycle some old photos into the post; yes, the ones of the walk were taken in June rather than October but at least they give an idea of the scale of the landscape in which we were walking. In a nutshell, Muniellos Nature Reserve is an area of protected ancient deciduous woodland – some of the oldest in Europe – which covers almost 55 square kilometres and the circular walk rises to 1400 metres, making it higher than any peak in the UK. It is believed to be the best preserved oak forest in Spain and is home to a wealth of tree species and wildlife, including wolves and the Cantabrian brown bear. Access is by prior permission only, individuals can only apply to visit once in any twelve months and no more than twenty people are allowed access each day; astonishingly, it is completely free of charge.

For me, this place is about as close as it comes to paradise. Imagine standing on the side of a mountain, completely surrounded by mixed deciduous woodland which sweeps right to the tops of the rocky peaks as far as the eye can see in every direction. Apart from possibly nineteen other people, there is absolutely nothing of mankind here: no roads or buildings, no fields or farms, no pipelines or pylons, no fences or gates, no machines, no man-made noise. These unspoilt forests are as they have been for millennia, wild and beautiful, pure unbridled nature in the raw; it is a rewilder’s greatest dream. I cannot begin to describe what an utter privilege it is to spend time walking, looking and thinking in this most precious of environments.

So, my second reason for writing this post is actually the very fact that the camera didn’t work; yes, it’s frustrating not to have the images but in reality, it meant spending the whole day totally focused and absorbed with what was going on around us. We would only have memories to take away and making them meant indulging in a masterclass in ‘mindfulness,’ being completely aware and present in each moment without the distraction of technology. To be honest, it was bliss.

The walk is a tough one and definitely not for wimps. First timers have a long and detailed briefing from the warden before setting off and fairly strict times have to be adhered to as the gates are locked at night. It’s no exaggeration to say there are a couple of sections that find me literally crawling on all fours across a rock face on the way up (and very much not looking down) and the first hour of descent is no stroll in the park either as it follows a steep,rocky and perilously slippery stream bed. It’s necessary to keep eyes on the path much of the time so regular stops are needed to drink in those stunning vistas; otherwise, it’s a great opportunity to focus on the small things. How beautiful the perfect symmetry of a fallen oak leaf, half yellow, half green and studded with pearly rain drops; what a treat for the fingertips the knotted fissures of oak bark, the smooth striations of papery birch, the lacy haze of lichen; what colour and texture and form in starbursts of fungi at every turn.

Although we chatted to each other now and then, much of our six hour hike was spent in companionable silence. This is partly because on walks like this, Roger leaps and hops confidently from boulder to boulder like the proverbial mountain goat while I flail along several metres behind like a nervous mountain giraffe (I’ll leave that image with you for a moment 🙂 ) but also because somehow talking here just seemed, well, rude – like making dirty footprints in a pristine carpet of snow or pulling the petals off a rare flower. Human voices felt like an unnecessary intrusion in nature’s symphony and being quiet and simply listening, I tuned in to far more nuances of sound: the rush and chatter of the river, bursts of birdsong, the gentle whisper of the breeze and the way it played different melodies through birch, oak and holly, the hollow clomp of my boots across rocky scree slopes and the softer thud on packed earth, the sounds of my breath and heart constant reminders of being alive in this wonderful, invigorating place. What a completely magical moment to stand in silent stillness together and watch a pair of ibex on the rocky slope above us, such elegant, statuesque creatures.

Although we were a little early for the full glory of the autumn colours (no surprise that the rest of October was fully booked!), there was a plentiful feast for the eyes and it wasn’t long before I realised that instead of looking at my surroundings through a viewfinder, I was using the lens of my dyer’s eye.

What word would I choose to describe that precise colour of beech leaves as they melt from their fresh summer greens into buttery yellow? How could I create the flaming russet fringe of feathery bracken or the pinker dusky rose of bilberry bushes or the flamboyant screaming scarlet of jewelled rowan berries? Would a light touch of palest grey, a fine detail of charcoal and a splash of the most delicate soft sage green do justice to a lichen-encrusted birch branch? As for the fungi, where to start . . ?

Six hours, two sore feet and a very happy heart later it was time to say goodbye to Muniellos once again, but with my head ringing with the earthy delights of bark and berry, leaf and lichen, moss and mushroom and everything else that creates the essence and spirit of all things sylvan, I was already planning an appointment with my dyepot . . .

My first thought was to finish spinning a current skein of Romney, then try to recreate a mix of some of the colours I had enjoyed as we wandered through that vast forest. However, on reflection, what I felt I had brought home with me from Muniellos was a deep awareness of unblemished nature and this should be my starting point rather than any specific ideas of colour and shade. Yes, the time had come to finally stop procrastinating and try some natural dyeing. For anyone who knows me, it may seem strange that so far my forays into Dyeing World have involved synthetic dyes rather than natural dyestuffs but there is a good (or at least, thought-provoking) reason for this. Most plant materials used for dyeing are adjective, which means the fibre needs to be treated with a mordant (from Latin mordere – to bite) in order to fix the pigment. The most commonly used mordants are alum, iron, copper and tin – all metal salts, none of which is particularly pleasant and some of which are downright poisonous. Every time I have teetered on the edge of having a go I’ve drawn back, wondering if this is really any better for the environment than the specialist acid dyes I’ve used so far.

Time for some research, then, and in particular into which tiny number of plant dyes are substantive and therefore not in need of a mordant . . . and how thrilled was I to find that top of the list was walnut, both hulls and leaves. Now walnut trees are not native to Spain, but they’ve been here a long time – since the Romans brought them, in fact – they grow like stink and we have a whole nuttery of them. How perfect for my ‘essence of woodland’ dyeing adventure.

To make the dyebath, I collected green walnut leaves straight from the tree, chopped them into small pieces to help yield more dye and simmered them in spring water on top of The Beast for an hour or so until the liquid was a rich caramel brown. What a lovely, spicy, herbal smell – definitely far better than those chemical dyes. Roger said it smelt like something good was cooking!

I usually prefer to dye skeins of spun yarn but as this was a huge learning experience I decided to opt for combed Merino top instead and, just out of interest (this felt like a day for being daring), I added a small amount of unbleached tussah silk as well. My plan was that if everything went pear- shaped at least with unspun fleece I had more rescue options than with spun yarn.

Normally, I soak the fibre in a commercial wool scourer before dyeing; I expect raw fleece to be dirty, smelly and greasy but it’s amazing just how grubby the commercially washed stuff is, too. However, in the spirit of all things natural, I used the tiniest amount of an eco washing-up liquid instead.

I strained the dyebath, returned it to the pot and cooled it a little, then in went the fibres. I simmered them gently for half an hour then removed them from the heat and left the whole lot to steep overnight.

The next morning revealed the final colour, which had deepened from a pale latte to a creamy coffee fudge in the wool and an even deeper shade of brown in the silk, which I found interesting. Obviously, the silk was a darker shade to start with but whenever I’ve coloured it with chemical dyes before, it has always come out several shades lighter than the wool.

I could see straight away what a different quality this natural dye had to a chemical one, softer and more alive somehow as if smudged and blended from a range of shades like a muted rainbow. Those harsh synthetic edges just weren’t there. What’s more, there was enough dyebath (which interestingly smelled of prunes!) left to keep and use again – and if I didn’t want to do that, the spent leaves and liquid could simply go on the compost heap without causing any environmental concerns. Well, how wonderful. Now I was on a roll. Why stop there? I mean, if you’re going to experiment with something new and interesting, you might as well do it properly: enter the world of modifiers. Basically, dyeing is chemistry and much of what unfolds is down to pH as much as anything else (also the quality of water – it’s no coincidence that dyeing workshops used to be located in soft water areas). By steeping the dyed fibre in an acid or alkaline modifier it is possible to change the shade and so create several colours from one dyestuff and so I decided this had to be done, at least with the wool. I made an acid bath from citric acid crystals and water and an alkaline one from washing soda and water; no need to heat again, just pop the fibre in . . . anything that’s going to happen apparently does so within half an hour. The change in the acid bath was so subtle as to be barely noticeable; I’m interested to see if there is a greater difference once the wool has dried. The alkaline bath couldn’t have been a more different story. Wow! What’s fascinating isn’t just the extreme change to a more yellow colour but the range of different shades that appeared, including a very deep brown and reddish rusty colour.

Hung out to dry in morning shade. From left to right: unbleached tussah silk without modifier, Merino with alkaline modifier, Merino without modifier, Merino with acid modifier. The actual colours are richer than the photo suggests.
In afternoon sunlight, starting to dry and fluff up again. These colours are truer: can’t wait to get spinning! 🙂

Well, I am just so very happy! This is exactly what I’ve wanted dyeing to be and I feel completely inspired to continue, albeit in the knowledge that at some point I am going to have to confront the issue of mordants once again. In the meantime, I have another substantive dye – madder root – to play with and a wealth of natural seasonal beauty on the doorstep to inspire and feed my colour habit. Not a bad way to dye, don’t you think? 🙂