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. 🙂

Rainy days

Rain is grace; rain is the sky descending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.

John Updike

Rain. Having spent most of my life living on the western side of the British Isles, I’m no stranger to it; after spending three years living in the parched dust of the eastern Mediterranean, I vowed never to moan about it again. Water is life and rain is the lifeblood of the garden, so essential if we are to enjoy a bountiful harvest of food and flowers. There is nothing abnormal about a good dollop of rain here at this time of year; after all, this part of the world is called ‘Green Spain’ for a reason. Combined with gentle warmth and high light levels, it creates what must be just about the perfect growing climate. In times of drought, we can irrigate the garden from a mountain spring but even that soft, unadulterated water is never quite the same as a decent downpour from the sky.

It’s interesting how the experience of rain here is different to what I grew up with. For starters, although we can have seriously heavy storms, it is very unusual to have prolonged spells of rain and it’s a rare day that we can’t spend at least some time outdoors. The sky is different, too; no low, oppressive, dark grey gloom but rather cloud the pale grey of a pigeon’s breast that enfolds the valley or white cloud that weaves around the mountains and through the forests like strands of soft fleece.

This brings a unique and haunting atmosphere to the valley, something beautifully, mystically Tolkienesque. The garden shimmers with a million scintillating diamond drops.

Perhaps the greatest thing, though, is the warmth; no cold dousings these, but something soft and benign – and when the cloud clears and the sun shines, the valley and garden steam like a rainforest.

Oh my goodness, how stuff grows! There is such energy in the garden, such a burgeoning, flourishing, skyrocketing exuberance of growth, it is quite breathtaking. Plants seem to double in size overnight.

Courgettes, their leaves like huge elephants’ ears, jostle one another for elbow room; onions march in closed ranks, brassicas open their arms skywards, beans climb and wind widdershins round their poles, ever upwards.

Young apple trees groan under the weight of their swelling fruit.

The peas are monstrous, pushing and shoving in every direction, their pods as long as my hands.

The garden balloons in jungled layers; lettuce under marigolds under dill under climbing beans; dwarf beans under calabrese under peas; nasturtiums under and over everything!

I have lost control. There are places I can no longer venture, spaces filled by swathes of flowers I did not plant. Secretly, I am in my element!

Like a secret garden, there have been little surprises hidden away just waiting to be discovered. Tucked away deeply in a dark, leafy cave, the curiously fractal head of a romenesco broccoli.

Scrambling through the floral chaos of the terraces, the first whisper of another squash harvest.

In the murky depths of the rain-filled water trough pond, a squadron of tiny newts.

Nestling beneath the hazel hedge, the first flowers on Annie’s hydrangea.

Emerging from behind the scarlet wall of poppies, a self-set morning glory. What treasure!

Now how on earth did I miss these? How can we possibly have lived here for three years and not realised this little stunner was here? I think it’s angel’s trumpet (brugmansia) rather than the more sinister devil’s trumpet (datura); I know both are highly toxic but what an amazingly exotic beauty to ‘find’. What else could we have missed, I wonder?

Of course, it goes without saying that the kiwi relishes such weather and is making its usual takeover bid, the barn quietly disappearing under those thuggish twining tendrils despite Roger’s best efforts to exert some level of control.

There are benefits, though: the last delicate flowers are exciting the bees, the first furry fruits have set and I’m hoping the damp shade beneath that dense green canopy is exactly what’s needed for the magic to begin in our inoculated mushroom logs.

The rain has contributed greatly to the ongoing green manure story, too. It has accelerated the breaking down of the first cut of buckwheat, on a terrace now ready for planting with broccoli.

New sowings in different places have germinated in three days, including yellow trefoil with its sea-green leaves shooting up between the rows of chard, beetroot, spring onions, chicory, radicchio and winter brassica seed drills. Bare earth is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Can there be a more beautiful plant after rain than lady’s mantle? It’s a plant I love with its unfussy habits and froth of yellow foamy flowers but those scalloped leaves holding raindrops like pearls in an oyster shell are exquisite. I am truly thrilled with this little plant because it came into the garden as a gift, one half of a plant swap that makes it very special to me.

I love to share things in this way; I’m currently collecting many different types of flower seeds to give away and help spread the gardening love. It’s amazing how the smallest slip of root or pinch of seeds can become something tremendous, a living reminder of the generosity, shared passion for gardening and love of other people. What a delight to wander through the garden and be greeted by these honoured guests! How incredible to have squashes from Finland stretching out beneath Jerusalem artichokes from Camarthenshire; what joy to see the nodding flowers of comfrey from friends over the mountain, the zingy lime foliage and brilliant magenta flowers of a geranium (pelargonium) from a close neighbour’s cutting.

Some years ago, during one of our regular – and very alliterative! – seed swap sessions, Sarah gave me some white sage seeds which I finally got round to planting earlier this year. Germination is notoriously sketchy so I was thrilled to watch one little seedling grow rapidly into a healthy, vigorous plant which I’ve planted out in the garden this week. It’s an interesting specimen, hailing from the south-western United States and much valued by the native peoples for its medicinal qualities and use in ritual smudging ceremonies; it should be happy in our mild climate but I’m not so sure about the rain and humidity . . . we will see.

In the far corner of the vegetable patch, below the artichoke hedge, is a stand of very special sunflowers. The seeds were collected by Ben, William and Evan and given to me as a birthday gift which made me very happy – I am never going to have sunflowers in the garden for my December birthday, but how wonderful to have this promise of sunshine in a brown paper packet! The plants are almost as tall as me now and have raised their heads high above the other vegetables so we can see them from the sun terrace. The flowers are coming. I can hardly wait!

If only we could unzip the roof of the polytunnel and let the rain soak the earth in there, too!

No such luck, here we have no choice but to haul buckets and cans to keep everything happy but it’s worth the effort: I think we might be on for the best ever crop of peppers this year.

Aubergines usually frustrate me at the seedling stage with their we-want-to-die attitude but this year they went into the ground strong and lusty and full of promise. Ha ha, there’s always something willing to rain on our parade, it seems: enter flea beetles in their droves and doggedly persistent. We have tried all we can think of to send them packing but back they come for more, constantly taking the newest leaves from the centre of the plants. I’m trying to remain optimistic; there are twenty plants in there and they have a good show of flowers so fingers crossed, at least some will prevail.

Meanwhile, there is another regular visitor to be found lurking amongst their leaves; mmm, just hope it isn’t tucking in, too.

The moisture-laden air brings an ethereal quality to the early morning that is too lovely to miss. Dawn might see the valley totally engulfed in white cloud but as the sun climbs above the mountain, this dissipates to reveal the tantalising promise of a beautiful day. Still pyjama-clad, I brew a large mug of tea, grab a blanket (for comfort rather than warmth) and head out to breathe in that sweet freshness for a few moments.

The birdsong of springtime has not yet diminished and the music rises in a melodious crescendo, reverberating across the valley like a sky-roofed cathedral. The garden is already busy with their activity: a blackbird bathes in the little pond; feisty robins vie for the best worm-hunting spot; a song thrush hammers snails against a terrace stone; shy dunnocks scuttle timidly between the plants; a yellow serin passes through, all flap and twitter like a clockwork toy; bullfinches and goldfinches crash through the peace in a blaze of colour and noise. A clutch of young blue tits, scruffy in their juvenile foliage, pick aphids from the peach tree leaves, their garrulous squeaks and comical acrobatics a complete contrast to the pair of tiny warblers that share the plunder. The garden fizzes with bumble bees about their business, too; how fascinating that they focus their initial attention on the red poppies as if they know full well how transient and fleeting those flowers are. Other beauties can wait until later!

So the wet weather has passed through and rainy days have given way to something drier, sunnier, hotter . . . not the searing heat being experienced in other parts, thankfully, but true summer nonetheless.

In the evening, I sit on the sun terrace, stitching a few more squares of my blanket together and drink in the vibrant green lushness of garden and landscape the rain has left behind.

In the warmth, the scent of freesias is divine; how I wish I could stitch a bit of that fragrance in, too!

The rain was wonderful but it’s delightful now to turn my face to the sun once again . . . and my silent little companion on the terrace feels just the same way, I think! 🙂

Sunshine and soap

Sunshine is such a precious gift and never more so than at this time of year. We often celebrate with a special meal on the day of the winter solstice, or else ‘midwinter’ three days later, the point at which it is possible to tell that the sun has begun its journey north once more; as that coincided with Christmas Eve this year, we decided to have our feast on Nochebuena in the local way. For me, it is a deeply meaningful celebration, an acknowledgement of the way in which sunlight is essential to all life and the key to our very being. The worst of winter is ahead but after that, spring will come once more.

Although the shorter days see the natural world slowing down here after summer’s frantic activity, things are far from dormant. The garden still jingles with birdlife: blackbirds and blackcaps already staking their claim to the kiwis; robins bobbing across the mulched bare earth in search of skinny pink worms; chaffinches and great tits call in simple cadences whilst long-tailed tits chatter sociably through their acrobatics. I love the quiet charm of tiny green warblers, the cheekiness of wrens, the bravado of goldfinches and bluster of bullfinches who, even though they are stealing buds from the peach trees, are forgiven purely for their vibrant beauty. Above us, ravens croak and cough in high places, raptors soar and swoop on spiral trajectories and the silent, spectral heron stalks the river bank below. There is a pageant of colour and show in the floral world, too. No need for poinsettias here.

Lizards are basking in sunny spots, moles are making merry in the loamy earth and where ditches hold water they are gelled with frogspawn. We were woken by the persistent barking of a huge dog fox in the meadow behind the house and watched him through an open window, silvered in moonlight, as his confident call reverberated around the valley. Pure magic. As if the sun itself is honouring the season, we have been treated to a week of spectacular sunsets; I have watched mesmerised as clouds have mingled and morphed and colours bled and changed and deepened in a transient canvas of sheer artistry. No need for tinsel and fairy lights, either.

With Christmas Day free from distraction, we took a flask of coffee and headed out to walk along a path which circles the mountain opposite. It is a walk I love, following the curving contours of the mountain and enjoying stunning views of the sunlit valley below and distant peaks fading into hazy blues.

What sheer delight to feel the warmth of that sun! We walked long stretches without speaking, not because we had nothing to say to one another but simply because the silence was so profound; no sound of man or machine, not so much as a cat’s paw of wind in the trees . . . so perfectly quiet we could hear the flutter of butterflies passing on their drowsy wings. The air was suffused with the aromatic spicy scents of sun-warmed pine and eucalyptus; I often wonder if our distinct lack of colds and winter bugs has anything to do with this daily dose of nature’s own aromatherapy?

At one point along the ridge it is possible to look across and see our little white house nestled in the meadows below sweeps of forest. What always strikes me about this view is just how high the mountain stretches away from us and how wild and untamed the countryside becomes just minutes from our door. We are so blessed to live in such a place.

This warm, dry, settled weather seemed just perfect for taking my first tentative steps into the world of soap making. It’s something I’ve often thought of doing but have backed away from because I know that lye is nasty stuff. That said, we no longer have small children or pets to worry about and I am a grown up after all, so the time had come to give it a go. Projects like this always excite me; like dyeing wool, making soap is a fascinating mix of science and art and leaves me pondering its intriguing history. How did someone discover that running rainwater through wood ash and mixing the resulting lye with fat could make something so useful? My intention was to use ingredients we had to hand to make a very basic ‘kitchen cupboard’ soap, one that would give me an idea of how the process works without involving any fancy stuff; my thinking was that if it wasn’t very good, I could at least use it for laundry. To that end, I chose to use olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and sweet almond oil with lemon essential oil for a subtle fragrance and antibacterial qualities; no colourants whatsoever.

Soap making requires distilled water. Our water comes into the house directly from a mountain spring so it is free of the chemicals found in mains water, very soft and mineral-rich . . . and that is a problem. Minerals in the water can affect how the lye behaves and can also cause ‘dreaded orange spots’ to appear as the soap cures. As the idea of buying plastic bottles of distilled water somehow seemed to go against the whole ethos of my project, I decided to make my own. I floated a heatproof glass bowl in a stockpot of water, brought it to the boil, inverted the lid and piled it with ice. Within half an hour, my bowl was full of distilled water . . . and as we have a plentiful supply of free water and free heat when The Beast is lit, this is a very sustainable method – and adds to the fun, too!

Having gathered everything I needed, I decided to set up my chemistry lab outside; I always prefer to do things outdoors when I can anyway and it made sense not to be creating unpleasant fumes in the house if it wasn’t necessary. Working in long sleeves, gloves, goggles and mask isn’t the most comfortable of situations but from my experiences in activities like dyeing and beekeeping I recognise the good sense in a disciplined approach to safety – better to feel slightly encumbered than suffer a chemical burn or lose an eye.

Unfortunately, at this point my trusty Technical Support Manager discovered that the adaptor plug I needed for our long extension had blown a fuse and we had no replacement to hand; this meant I couldn’t use the hand blender outside so a change of plan was needed – cue carting most of that stuff back up fourteen steps to the kitchen! I could still mix the lye and water outside, however, and this I did; I didn’t see any fumes given off but the rapid appearance of condensation on the bowl certainly suggested an energetic exothermic reaction was well under way. While the lye cooled, I mixed the oils together and heated them gently to melt the coconut oil.

Then for the exciting bit, starting the saponification process. I slowly stirred the lye into the oils then got busy with the hand blender. At first, the mixture looked like a thin pancake batter but within moments had thickened to a light ‘trace’ – leaving a faint trail like a whisked sponge mixture.

This indicated that the water and oils had emulsified: the point of no return. I added the essential oil and blended a little bit more until the batter was thick and creamy, then poured it into silicone moulds; covered and left in the warmth of the kitchen, I needed to leave them for them for at least 24 hours to set . . . oh, the anticipation!

The moment of truth. I’m not sure whether I was nervous, excited or both but the soaps felt firm enough, so I took a deep breath and carefully turned them out of their moulds.

Amazing! I mean, obviously I knew I was trying to make soap and having read a couple of books and watched zillions of video clips, I was hopeful it would work . . . but isn’t it a lovely thing to try something so new and different, to watch a fascinating process unfold right in front of your eyes? The soaps looked and smelt like creamy lemon panna cotta, almost good enough to eat, and I was desperate to dive in and have a good wash! We could use them now but they are better if cured and will last longer in the shower that way. I’ve put them on an airy shelf in the airing cupboard (yes, we have one in the bathroom at last . . . also, we have a bathroom :-)) where they can stay for the next four to six weeks. I’m turning them daily and watching for changes in their texture and appearance; if the dreaded orange spots appear, we can still use them but I might have to rethink my distilled water plan for future projects. So far, so good.

Encouraged by my initial success, I’m now eagerly awaiting a parcel of new and more exciting ingredients so I can have a go at making solid shampoo bars. In the meantime, I’m wandering around the garden, lanes and woodland wondering what natural resources I might be able to use in creating my own toiletries.

What a wonderful excuse for being outside, filling my lungs with fresh mountain air, turning my face to the sun, drinking in the views and feeling such overwhelming joy at being alive. January might be looming, but my heart and soul are singing with soap and sunshine. Happy New Year, one and all!:-)

Summer’s end

Summer ends, and Autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night.’ Hals Borland

They say that change is the only constant in life and goodness me, have we been dealing with it over the last couple of days! I love the circle of the year, the way seasons slide from one to another bringing all their associated joy and beauty (and chaos and woe at times, too) but I do prefer the change to be gradual, to give me time to adjust gently.

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We are so lucky here that summer stretches lazily away into the autumn months. Was it only last weekend we were paddling in the sea off Portugal? Was it only two evenings ago we were sitting outside in the evening sunshine in shorts and sandals, enjoying the light and warmth so much we didn’t want to go inside and make dinner? What a transformation, then, to wake to something so different yesterday: the valley hung with sullen clouds and threaded with mist, the garden soaked in rain.

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There was the true smell of autumn in the air – that heady, spicy, leafy scent – and a crisp freshness to the air that had me pulling on long-redundant layers. I love sunshine, the light and warmth and colour it bestows on everything, the comfort it brings to life, but I have to admit there is something special about the garden after rain. Everything looks different in a changed light, there is a new slant to the old and familiar – leaves hung with diamond raindrops and petals washed to translucence.

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The landscape, too, changes its coat as it shrugs off those bright blues and greens for something more muted. I have to confess, there is a certain delight in seeing smoke curling from the chimney once again and catching the sweet scent of wood smoke on the rain-spangled air.

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Nature it seemed had only just started with us, though: cue a night of thunderstorms and violent hail showers that left the garden looking ragged and the mountaintops white over in the sluggish morning light. From summer to winter in one fell swoop? It certainly felt that way!

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Still, life is not all summer and nature and the season are simply reminding us there is a balance in all things. It would be easy to feel a shiver of melancholy blowing with the chilly wind but this change brings good things into our lives, too. There is a shift in our daily tasks, the most obvious one being keeping the log bucket filled. Our woodstove (aka The Beast) is back in business and it has a pretty hearty appetite; this is what all those days spent hauling, chopping and stacking logs have been in aid of. We have to switch our cooking activities to the other end of the room as here are hob and oven ready primed for action; the kettle sings away merrily, giving us a plentiful supply of hot water for drinks and washing up. It’s a strange thing, but our fuel bills drop drastically in the cooler months! What lovelier way to pass a miserably wet afternoon than making peach marmalade with our very last bag of frozen fruit, the sweet, citrussy smell of summer remembered wafting through the house on a wave of toasty warmth?

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Actually, this first dose of cabin fever sent Roger into a wonderful kitchen overdrive. Just to add to the tantalising smell of peaches and lemons, two gorgeously crusty sourdough loaves emerged from the oven. We were given a sourdough starter in July by Sam and Adrienne; it is fondly know as The Yeasty Beastie and lives happily in the fridge until feeding time ahead of a baking session. We honestly couldn’t imagine making bread any other way now. On a serious cooking roll, Chef then set himself the challenge of doing something with figs. What to do with a glut of fresh figs has become a bit of an annual conundrum for us; I love them straight from the tree or with yogurt and walnuts for breakfast or chopped into a salad of bitter leaves. Fig recipes don’t tend to be very inspiring and often exude a sense of desperation. What do you do with them? (I appreciate we could dry them but I have to confess that dried figs are one of those foods I really don’t like, there’s something about the seeds that literally puts my teeth on edge.) Well, how about a dark chocolate torte with figs poached in Calvados? Mmm, now you’re talking! Gosh, we hardly ever have puddings but this one was to die for.

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More comfort food required: steak and kidney casserole (boosted with borlotti beans), creamy mash, spiced roasted squash and cheesy leeks. Oh my word. There’s another change, though; when was the last time fetching veg from the garden required wellies and a garden fork to rummage about in the mud? Well worth it, I’d say.

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It was a bit of a shock to be back in long trousers and socks . . . but a timely reminder that I have a pair of socks to finish knitting and there should be time to get the second one done before we leave if I get my skates on.

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Something I have finished, though, is my chunky woolly stuff bag and I’m so thrilled with it. It was just the right thing to curl up with and potter away at in front of the stove while the rain battered against the windows. I have loved every minute of this project, it has been a dream working with chunky yarn and I’m delighted with the zippy cheerfulness of those colour stripes.

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Even better, there is enough yarn left for another bag project; I’ve wound it into balls and they’re already snuggled in there, packed for the journey along with some sock yarn. My new mittens are in there, too, and there’s room for a hat, a book, my specs . . . everything I will need on the boat and more. Forget the Bag of Doom: here’s to the Bag of Room.

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It will be a long time now before I write another post; we have many thousands of miles to travel in failing light and dubious weather, and much work to be do in the coming weeks. There will be the pleasure of catching up with friends and family, too, and enjoying good food and happy moments together. In the meantime, autumn will walk on here in our absence and things will have changed once again by the time we return . . . but that’s what makes life interesting, isn’t it? 🙂

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Wandering and wondering

We go shopping as infrequently as possible; it’s not something either of us ever particularly enjoys but at this time of year I come to detest it as the inexorable Christmas bombardment greets us at the shop door. What is that all about? Christmas is two months away . . . are we the only people left in modern society who are actually still enjoying October? Are we unusual in not wanting to spend at least a sixth of the year focusing on one day in December? Walking into a DIY shop out of bright, warm, Spanish sunshine to be greeted by a forest of plastic Christmas trees, snowflakes and illuminated glitter-sprinkled nativity scenes was just downright weird; who wants to look at Father Christmas wrapped up in all his red, beardy finery when we are still in shorts and sandals? One of the loveliest things about our simple life is the fact that we can practise true mindfulness in the sense of enjoying all the small, special things that are happening in the present rather than waiting for the present (at Christmas or whenever). When Roger went out one evening this week to shut the sheds as it went dark, he came back with a handful of rosebuds he had picked for me; small loving gestures like that – little surprises that are totally unexpected – are more precious to me than anything he could buy and wrap and stick under a tree.

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So, how lovely to escape the Christmas consumerist madness and retreat to our little haven in the mountains once again. There has been so much to celebrate this week, not least the continued gorgeous weather that keeps us wrapped in sunshine and toasty warmth. We have been harvesting figs from both trees – one with white-fleshed fruits, the other pink – in an attempt to beat the blackbirds and blackcaps to them. They are so delicious, sweet and succulent and I love them best of all sun-warmed straight from the tree.

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Although the walnut harvest didn’t look too promising, we’ve been nicely surprised by the amount we have collected so far and there are still plenty left in their green cases on the trees; no problems with the birds there, it’s the wild boar we have to keep at bay!

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Look closely at this walnut tree and you can see there’s rather more than nuts to be picked. Yes, that is a Russian Pink Fairy squash climbing through the branches! I lifted the parent plant a few weeks ago but the stem had sent down roots in several places and this one has just kept on growing and has produced a couple of extra fruits. Madness!

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Having nurtured our little lemon tree through far too many winter storms, how exciting to find a single baby fruit on it. There is another flush of blossom, too, and still plenty of pollinators around to do the business so maybe there will be more fruits to come. In the meantime, I am keeping my eye on this brave little beauty. Picking our own lemons . . . now that’s a rather special treat to look forward to. 🙂

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I know I have said it many times, but wandering around the garden picking bits and pieces for our dinner always brings me a huge amount of pleasure and I feel enormously grateful that we can enjoy such a wealth of fresh, wholesome food every day. Although things like cucumbers and French beans are over, we are still harvesting huge amounts of peppers both outdoors and in the polytunnel, along with aubergines, Florence fennel, carrots, chard, courgettes, several types of kale, cabbage and lettuce. We treated ourselves to the first parsnip and leek this week, we don’t have a big crop of either but they are huge so we can stretch them a long way and they were truly delicious.

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The tunnel will really come into its own now, taking us through the winter with a good variety of salad leaves including red and green mizuna, mustard, rocket, wild rocket and coriander. Oh, the sheer joy of picking the freshest, greenest, zingiest salad bowl of baby leaves this week!

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As spaces open up in the garden, I have been turning the soil to clear it of weeds, preparing to spread a good mulch of manure as an autumn feed. It’s such hard work on the slopes, every forkful has to be thrown uphill to stop it all rolling down the mountainside and where the ground is slippery I tend to do a strange backwards moonwalk in my wellies! It hasn’t been helped by the fact that the moles have had a field day along the bottom of the garden (their furtive tunnelling conveniently hidden in the squash jungle) so the path is falling away; a terrace wall along there is definitely on the to-do list for next year. Little velvet-coated annoyances aside, I love turning the soil like this; it is dark and deep and there is something wonderful about that rich, earthy smell. A good rest over winter to let the worms and weather do their work then all will be set for seedtime once again.

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Autumn is very slow to arrive here, it tiptoes in so quietly and gently that we barely notice it is here. There has been a subtle shift in the light and colours playing across the landscape this week, some gentle hints of golds and browns although everything is still predominantly green.

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The fungi have popped up overnight like – well – mushrooms, marching across the meadow in perfect formation.

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I found theses in the wood; no idea what type they are but they reminded me of drop spindles!

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Between the fungi, there is a wide and wild sweep of autumn crocus with their delicate mauve petals and saffron centres. So beautiful.

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I wandered through the woods to my Contemplation Stool and my favourite leafy glade bathed in golden afternoon sunlight. There weren’t as many signs of autumn as I’d imagined although the chestnut and birch trees caught against the blue sky were doing their bit. I sat for a few moments listening to the birds and reflected on how far from all that plastic Christmas madness the moment was.

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I love this little patch of paradise and the fact that we are both so content to spend most of our time here; it’s nothing for the car to stay parked for a fortnight or more without going anywhere. That said, we enjoy travelling and visiting new places and the mind-broadening stimulation and enrichment that can bring. Now the house renovation is almost done, we have more time to look outwards so a charity race in Vigo last weekend gave us the perfect excuse to pack our running shoes and head off to somewhere different. We travelled down through Galicia into a landscape very different to this one; instead of mountains there were gently rolling hills with large arable farms set amongst great swathes of forest, reminding me very much of parts of France (although the palm trees were a bit of  giveaway!). We stopped at Santiago de Compostela, the final destination for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who follow the network of Jacobean routes across France, Spain and Portugal every year. We live close to the Camino del Norte and were interested to see where the footsore pilgrims we see walking throughout the summer end up. As well as a magnificent cathedral, the city is also home to one of the oldest universities in Europe and many of the historic campus buildings are very beautiful. We wandered through the ancient streets and enjoyed the quiet courtyards full of flowers.

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Every other building seemed to be a hostel or restaurant and little wonder – if I had walked all those miles then food, drink and sleep would definitely be top of my list! We passed through an archway where a busker was squeezing a jaunty tune out of traditional bagpipes and emerged into the sunlit Praza do Obradoiro in front of the cathedral. It is certainly a spectacular building but it was the pilgrims who caught my eye and attention: people from all over the world drawn to this place that to them is so very special. There were groups laughing and chatting, already sharing stories and memories; couples and individuals wandered around the square drinking in the sights and sounds or simply sat in quiet contemplation; others lay with heads cushioned on their backpacks, faces turned to the sun. Someone played a guitar. I watched a group of ladies well into their seventies clinging to one another as they took the final steps into the square, melting into tears and laughter. How far had they walked to get there, I wondered? What obstacles had they overcome, what memories would they treasure? There is a lively buzz to Santiago but in that square I felt so much more, a powerful wave of human emotions – joy, exhilaration, exhaustion, achievement, wonder, relief, completeness. Every one of those people had set themselves a huge personal challenge and I suspected that the journey had changed them in a profound way. I don’t share the pilgrims’ faith and I have no desire to follow the Camino myself but I felt very touched by being a part of their journey’s end: I salute every single one of them.

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From Santiago we headed south to Vigo. To be fair to the place, our hotel was at the not-so-pretty end (close to the race start) and we didn’t see the historic bits so I don’t want to sound too negative but honestly, the traffic was beyond crazy. Roger decided it was the worst place he had ever driven through in his life (which is saying something) and he ended up using satnav for the first time ever (which is really saying something). Our hotel was comfy and the food was great but we are not naturally city people and were happy to head out of the chaos and explore further afield. We followed our noses down the coast road south with no precise plan. I love wandering about like that, just doing our own thing off the beaten track; we have always found the prettiest and best of places more by accident than design.

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We turned inland and wound our way through miles of vineyards, the vines clambering high over supports and starting to flaunt their autumn fire. A bridge carried us across the Minho river and into Portugal, where we decided to carry on down the coast. Well, why not?  We loved the pretty cobbled seaside town of Caminha where the wild Atlantic waves crashed against rocks that looked like the remnants of an ancient lava flow.

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We wandered barefoot along a wide expanse of beach, the silver sand sparkling with silica stars. Everything was so blue, it was truly beautiful and delightfully hot!

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Onwards to Viana do Castelo where we climbed up to the Santuário de Santa Luzia, an iconic mountaintop church, to enjoy the spectacular views down to the city and the coast beyond. We even ended up being part of a wedding celebration there which brought an added and unexpected moment to our day!

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On Sunday morning we both ran in the Vigo Contra el Cáncer race and what an event it was with the best part of 5 000 people taking part in a 10k run and 5k walk / run. The streets were turned into a tidal wave of pink as people from all walks of life turned out to support the local charity. Like Santiago, the atmosphere tingled with emotion, many walkers and runners sporting photos of loved ones on their t-shirts. I have run in a couple of Race For Life events but this was on a totally different scale and it felt good to be part of such an incredible thing and to give something back to this lovely country that has made us so welcome.

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Home once more and now we have turned our thoughts to our next journey, the long trek north through France to the UK next week. Oh my goodness, I think we are going to find it a little chilly and it does feel strange digging out long trousers and warm jumpers while I’m still pootling about in shorts and sockless crocs! On the bright side, I might just get to try out my new mittens, all finished and ready to go. I so enjoyed this little project, creating something from nothing; now I’m pondering the other skein of purple Merino waiting in the wings – some snuggly slipper socks, perhaps?

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I’m still very much in creative energy mode so I’ve decided to capitalise by launching into something I’ve been thinking about making for several years: a designated bag for carrying my woolly projects when we go a-travelling. At home, I keep everything close to hand in a couple of wicker baskets but they aren’t practical for packing or lugging about on a plane or ferry. I usually end up stuffing a bit of sock knitting into the top of  a rucksack or – heaven forbid – my (hand)Bag of Doom, which is far from perfect. I’ve tumbled vague ideas around my mind about spinning a heap of chunky yarn, dyeing it in a range of colours then knitting a tapestry-style tote bag . . . but it hasn’t happened; hardly surprising when you consider it has taken me over six months to spin 100g of fleece this year. (It’s finished and skeined but hasn’t made it to the dyepot yet; can’t rush these things.) In fact I could probably walk every route of the Camino in the time it would take to accomplish. So, at the risk of taking an easy way out, I’ve bought commercial yarn and opted for crochet instead.

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Not surprisingly, Attic 24 gave me the exact starting point I was looking for with Lucy’s Jolly Chunky Bag It’s possible to buy a kit but I wasn’t over fussed on the colour combinations (I used ‘Lipstick’ and ‘Fondant’ last year and I’m not a fan) so chose a different palette of colours for the yarn and buttons that are far more ‘me.’ I’ve decided to make the bag bigger than the stated pattern, hopefully roomy enough to cart blanket projects round in and I’ve also bought a couple of magnetic clasps as I think being able to close the bag is a good idea. This is the first time I’ve used chunky yarn in a crochet project and it whizzes up like a dream; in no time at all, the circular base was done . . .

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. . . and as I work round and round the sides, it’s starting to look more like a bag every minute. I am enjoying this activity so much, it’s the perfect simple, therapeutic wool messing for enjoying outside in the evening sunshine and with any luck will be finished in time to stuff with travel projects next week. Well, if I’m going to be a bag lady I might as well do it in style! 🙂

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The wisdom of work

Work (noun): activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result.

“For human beings, a life of such simplicity would be possible if one worked to produce directly his daily necessities. In such a life, work is not work as people generally think of it, but simply doing what needs to be done.” ― Masanobu Fukuoka,  The One Straw Revolution

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Today it is the Fiesta Nacional de España, a national public holiday which for most people means a day off work or school to spend relaxing with their families. We have planned the treat of a two-course meal  for ourselves this evening – crab salad followed by mackerel barbecued over branches of bay –  to celebrate not only the delights of local fresh seafood and beautiful weather but a week of ‘getting things done.’

We have made huge strides forward on the house renovation front this week. I hardly dare believe it, but after two and a half years, the end is in sight; true, it might be the faintest tantalising glimpse in the distance, but it’s there nonetheless. The roof windows are finally being fitted upstairs and the house is now flooded with brilliant natural light; the bathroom is almost finished, just the beautiful Moroccan-style floor tiles to go down; plans have been drawn up and materials bought for the entrance porch makeover. We are in danger of having a proper house at last!

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The buzz of activity has found me thinking about the nature of work and how it relates to the way of life we have chosen to adopt. I tried to come up with my own definition and was pleased that it almost matched the dictionary one above. The important point for me is that there is no mention of money, status, pressure or stress – words which seem to have become synonymous with the idea of working in modern society. I love the idea of effort, though; human bodies are designed to move, human minds are made to be stretched and the feeling of achievement from those activities should be one that makes us glow with happiness and pride. A job well done indeed! I haven’t worked professionally since April 2016 and much as I loved the satisfaction and pleasure of time spent in the classroom with children and being part of a great team of colleagues, I haven’t missed it one jot. I’ve just been too busy to even think about it. The point I’m trying to make is this: people can (and do!) look at our lifestyle and feel that we spend our lives on permanent holiday and don’t work but it’s the very fact that we are both prepared to work – and work very hard – that allows us to live like this in the first place.

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We simply made the decision (brave, foolish, reckless or otherwise) to free ourselves from paid employment in order to spend our time working for ourselves and that has brought an astonishing sense of liberty to our lives. Any targets or deadlines we have are our own. Team meetings and performance management discussions take place in leisurely fashion over a mug of coffee or glass of wine. There is no need for blue sky thinking when we spend so much of our time outdoors beneath it. There is no need for alarm clocks or ironed shirts or a car each when our place of work is right here on our patch of mountainside. Our days of effort don’t put a penny in the bank but they do allow us to spend time together in the evening preparing a meal cooked on wood we have hauled, chopped and stacked ourselves; made from ingredients we have grown and harvested from a garden we created from scratch, and orchards and woodland we manage; prepared in a kitchen we have transformed slowly from an almost inhabitable hovel to a bright, warm, practical and comfortable space. It keeps us busy: we often have long and very tiring days . . . but it’s a wonderfully satisfying and fulfilling way to live. Most importantly, we are very happy!

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Having spent most of the week with either a paintbrush or garden fork in my hand, it’s been good to grab a few moments for woolly things and here, too, I’ve been mulling over the nature of work and creativity. I have always loved what we tend to call ‘handicrafts’, people using their hands and minds to create objects from raw materials (William Morris had a famous line, I know, but I think handmade things are both useful and beautiful at the same time). I’d take a live demonstration of anything from weaving to wood-turning, pottery to patchwork over television or a shopping mall any day. What better form of work could there be than spending time and skill making something in that way? So when it comes to art, I’ve always much preferred things that are simple and folksy – especially when applied to handicrafts and practical objects –  rather than fine art for art’s sake. This is possibly also a reflection of my own prejudice based on the fact that I am hopeless at drawing and painting pictures. Give me pencil and paper and I can spend a long time creating something nobody would ever recognise. It’s no surprise that our machine-savvy grandsons have never asked me to draw them another combine harvester; it would just be too painful for all of us. I’m far happier with something more tactile in my hands: fleece, yarn, textiles, furniture paints, food, plants . . . now there are possibilities! I’ve had a lot of fun making birthday cards for our little grandchildren this year, and although they are simple and somewhat naïve in style, I do hope they can at least tell what the picture is (although I haven’t been brave enough to attempt a tractor yet).

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This sort of practical simplicity is exactly the style I’ve been thinking about whilst planning the embroidery for my mittens. I’ve had a fascinating time researching embroidery, it’s such a huge and varied subject. A friend has loaned me a wonderful book about Asturian history and I was thrilled to find a photo of a traditional headscarf embroidered with a spray of wild flowers . . . so there will be a little touch of Asturias in my mittens, too!

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I’ve discovered all sorts of techniques and materials (waste canvas, soluble interfacing . . .) that I didn’t even know existed. Much as these things would make for a more professional finish, however, I have no intention of using them. For a start, it would be a bit ironic setting out to make something new from recycled wool which has cost me nothing and then spending a small fortune on extras! More than that, though, I want to maintain the integrity of an old handicraft which has been practised for centuries without the benefit of modern materials; yes, the outcome might be a bit wobbly and less than perfect but that for me is the whole point. So, armed with a few coloured pencils and my bag of yarny rune pegs I headed outside to draw (!) up a plan.

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My initial idea was to do something along the lines of Adrienne’s wedding invitation and the Asturian headscarf – a spray of flowers with solid petals worked in satin stitch – but that somehow looked too cramped in the space and shape I had to play with. Next, I tried scattered flowers with separate stems but there was something about its exploded bouquet nature I wasn’t happy with. Time to chew my pencil . . . start doodling . . . play with my pegs. Put the kettle on? Actually, time to go and have a wander round the garden while my ideas sorted themselves out and (as so often happens) nature provided the answer. Looking at the little pops and splashes of colour spread around the garden, I was struck by how many are currently unplanned partnerships of things I’ve planted and things that have planted themselves, creating bright little embroideries of their own.

Verbena bonariensis that has popped up amongst the dahlias.

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A palette of pansies jostled by cheeky self-set calendula.

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The deep purple of clematis ‘Polish Spirit’ (still blooming!) against a fiery carpet of nasturtiums.

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I smiled at the way the morning glory which I sowed along the fence is weaving itself through a forest of self-sown borage . . . and all of a sudden, I could see my embroidery design clearly in my mind’s eye.

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Forget stems and sprays: I liked the idea of a single twisting vine, twining itself around a scattering of simple flowers like the five-petalled borage stars. A tickle in my hind brain told me I’d made woolly lazy daisies relatively recently but I couldn’t for the life of me remember where or why. Thank goodness for blogging! A quick glance back through old posts on my original blog and there they were: the bower bird mobiles I made last year as baby welcome gifts. Just the simple sort of embroidery I’m looking for.

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So design sorted, it was just a case of colour choices and this is where those woolly pegs are such a great tool. I could tell straight away that the darker yellow looked better than the light one against the purple mitt and that the softer bluey-greens were more appropriate than the brighter yellowy ones. Incredible, too, how some of the colours I’d rather fancied for flowers (like turquoise) looked completely wrong.

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Inspired by the borage, I opted for five different shades of blue for my lazy daisies, moving from darkest to lightest up the mitten. The embroidery was such a lovely thing to do, it was incredible watching the dense purple knitted fabric gradually becoming something altogether different and stitching away in the softness of a warm afternoon with a mug of my favourite Assam was soooooo therapeutic. One mitten finished and seamed, now for the second one . . .

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I’ve also found a little bit of time for knitting this week; with my list of birthday socks done and dusted, I started on a new pair for myself. This is Drops Fabel yarn in ‘Guacamole’ – wow, I love those zingy colours!

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Unlike birthday gift socks which require much love and attention, I am able to knit socks like these for myself on autopilot, so it doesn’t take long for my thoughts to wander. I found myself wondering what our newly-renovated home must have been like when originally built in the 1800s. A squat rectangular stone dwelling raised over a barn and under a tiled roof. No electricity. No running water. No bathroom. An open hearth and bread oven. I wouldn’t dream of romanticising it, life must have been pretty tough; how blessed we are that we can be a part of Casa Victorio’s history in a more comfortable style. Still, surely there were womenfolk who spent spare moments with fingers flying over needles to knit the lambswool socks worn inside madreñas, traditional Asturian wooden clogs? (Our neighbours today simply slide carpet slippers into their clogs but we have a friend who wears his with old-style thick woolly socks). For those ladies, such activity was probably considered work whereas for me it’s really a hobby, something I choose to do for pleasure; nonetheless, I love that idea of an old handicraft being passed down and practised like a golden thread of tradition woven through the tapestry of years. Will socks be knitted here a couple of centuries into the future, I wonder? Of course, I’ll never know . . . but it would be lovely to think so, wouldn’t it? 🙂

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Six On Saturday 28th July

Would it be rude of me to use the ‘R’ word given the extraordinary hot, dry weather searing through so much of Europe at the moment? Here in northern Spain – somewhat ironically – there has been no shortage of wet stuff falling from the sky; in fact, for weeks and weeks we wondered if it would ever stop. (For anyone tired of lugging watering cans now cursing me soundly, I’d like to point out we’ve also been living under mostly cloudy skies, grateful for the tiniest scraps of sunshine). It might be warm and incredibly humid rather than hot and dry,  but the upside is that the landscape is still lush and green and everything is growing like stink. Ten days away to attend the most beautiful West Sussex wedding was followed by another ten days trying to get the jungle-masquerading-as-a-garden back under some sort of control. Needless to say, we came home to delights and disasters so here are my six for today.

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I’ll start with the scene of devastation that greeted us in the polytunnel: every single tomato plant collapsed, brown and stinking, as a result of blight. It was no great surprise as blight is endemic in this area and this was our third and last attempt at growing a crop, a sort of  ‘do or die’ affair. Die it was, then. It’s a bit frustrating but I’ve filled the space with spare pepper and chilli plants and we ate what unblemished fruit there was. Forget chutney, green tomatoes cooked in olive oil with warming spices and finished with a dash of balsamic vinegar are truly delicious. Honestly.

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If nothing else, the Great Tomato Collapse had me tidying up the tunnel a bit; I staked the aubergines and peppers and gave them a good feed with comfrey tea, then turned my attention to encouraging some of the crazy ‘Melba’ melons upwards. . . and found some hidden treasures under all that foliage. Three fruits (so far) on five plants will hardly make the headlines but it’s a bit of fun. Everyone needs a little bit of frivolity in the garden, surely?

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So we have no tomatoes, no potatoes (there’s a two-year ban in place thanks to the Guatemalan potato moth) and the caterpillars have devastated the brassicas in our absence. 😦 Even so, I love this time of year in the veg patch; what is better than wandering around, trug in hand, foraging bits and pieces for dinner? We have more food than we know what to do with and although our veg wouldn’t win any prizes, they are fresh and wholesome and totally delicious. For me, this is what it’s all about!

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It’s good to see the hibiscus flowering again, they are such pretty things. We have several bushes – all of the common hybiscus syriacus variety –  and although they’ve been planted in daft places (such as the one in the background of my photo, struggling for light under the monster kiwi), they never fail to please. We have a couple of pink ones but my favourites are the whites with those waxy centres and astonishing ink blot of deepest pink dye.

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At the risk of sounding a bit tongue in cheek, Roger has been proudly admiring his nuts this week. In late winter, he lay a hazel hedge; it was quite a feat as the trees were really too tall but they have greened up into a thick, verdant hedge that has already housed several birds’ nests and is now flaunting clusters of large, frilly nuts. They are very beautiful,  looking more like a Kentish cob (well, a filbert really) than common hazel to me so we should be in for a treat if we can beat the wildlife to them later in the year.

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Finally, what a delight to return home to the gorgeous intensely blue abundance of agapanthus. These are ‘Northern Star,’ a hardy variety which flowered amazingly well in our former garden on a wet, windswept Welsh hillside but are ten times happier on our Spanish mountainside (mmm, also rather wet and windswept this year, it must be said). They were given to us on our son Sam’s 18th birthday so there was something lovely to come back from celebrating his wedding seven years later to find they had burst into their best ever show of blooms. Perhaps they knew? 🙂

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It’s time now to head across to join The Propagator   and find out what great things other gardeners have to share from their gardens this week. Happy gardening, all! 🙂

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Six on Saturday 30th June 2018

We’ve had a blast of heat this week, the kind that leaves everything in the garden flagging and wilting in a slightly soporific way during the afternoon and evening . . . but there are no complaints. Overnight temperatures in the high teens and a little gentle rainfall to freshen things up have encouraged maximum growth and certain plants seem to have doubled in size in a matter of days. We might have been several weeks behind this year but suddenly the gap is closing and glut time is knocking on the door. Yippee! Here are my Spanish Six for today.

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Having sat in the ground looking less than enthusiastic for several weeks, the cucumbers have decided this is the week to do something more energetic. Maybe they didn’t like the look of the very ‘unique’ climbing frame I fashioned for them out of three twirly metal tomato stakes (bought in France many years ago, one of the most brilliant garden equipment investments ever), a stout hazel pole, twine and three corks (a decent Rioja, by the way – someone has to do it :-)). Well, art it isn’t but it will do the job. I planted two varieties – ‘Diva’ and ‘Marketmore76’ – but despite a resolution to try and keep tabs on labels this year I have failed in spectacular fashion, so I have no idea what each of the five plants is. No worries, it’s good to see the first tiny fruits forming and if the last couple of years are anything to go by, we will be up to our necks in cucumbers in no time at all. Mmm, bring on the chilled cucumber and yogurt soup, such a perfect lunch dish in this warm weather.

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Another crop that invariably grows well here is squash; in fact, give it another month and they will be threatening to take over the valley. This year I have planted several new varieties sent to me by a Finnish friend which I am watching with great interest, but our absolute favourite ‘Crown Prince’ and the butternut variety ‘Harrier’ both went in as bulk staples (we have only just eaten the final stored butternut from last year’s harvest). Good old ‘Crown Prince’ is already well on the way to another bumper crop.

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Continuing with my theme from a couple of weeks ago, here is the late large-flowered clematis ‘Polish Spirit,’  yet another bargain basement supermarket buy that has started to flourish in its second year. It’s making quite an impact with those deep, velvety blooms sprawling along a post and rail fence in front of the rather unglamorous white polythene of the polytunnel; gorgeous throughout  the day, but I love them with the evening sunshine backlighting their show.

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One of the enduring memories of my grandparents’ north Shropshire garden is a fabulous butterfly-studded lavender hedge. I’ve never been able to emulate it in my own gardens, possibly because we’ve always gardened in higher, wetter, windier places and who could blame the plant for its refusal to thrive in those conditions? Now, at long last, I have a dozen or so basic ‘Munstead’ plants grown from a cheap packet of Wilko seed; they are thriving and have really come into their own this week so I have been crumbling a few flowers as a last-minute addition to my petal confetti. Perfect!

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The next one is something I had never really come across before we moved here so I needed to do a bit of research (thank goodness for the internet). It’s a tillandsia (I think tillandsia stricta) which grows literally suspended in the air. Thriving on high humidity, it’s little wonder they grow well here, although most of the others we’ve seen have been in gardens down on the coast. There were two balls of them here when we arrived two years ago; on the day we bought the house, the former owner (who insisted on being here to instruct us in how to operate the door keys – we obviously looked totally inept) plucked a flower bud off one and with a theatrical flourish, stuffed it up his nose to indicate – I assume- an impressive scent. Sadly, it proved to be the only bud on either plant and there has been no sign of another until now. This week, one plant has finally burst into bloom and the flowers are quite curious, pink buds that open into tiny blue blooms. Unfortunately, they are hanging too high for me to check their scent (and they are competing with some highly-perfumed roses) . . . but after two years, it’s good to see them.

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I won’t be Sixing next Saturday as we will be busy celebrating our son’s wedding in a rather beautiful West Sussex garden; by accident rather than design, the day before just happens to be our own anniversary. When we reached a ‘biggy’ three years ago, my parents-in-law gave us a beautiful Persica floribunda rose called ‘For Your Eyes Only.’ It was voted Rose of the Year in 2015 and little wonder: it is an absolute stunner and was one of a tiny handful of plants we brought with us when we moved here. It flowers three times a year and has burst into its second flush this week, bang on time for our anniversary as it has done each year. Thank you, you gorgeous thing!

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Time now to pop over to The Propagator and catch up with what everyone else has been up to in their gardens this week. 🙂

The light fantastic

Summer has most definitely arrived here. The children have broken up for their lusciously long school holiday and the San Juan fiesta rockets have been crumping and thumping in the distance all over the weekend. We have put up the sunbrella, stacked the fridge with sparkling water and cooked our dinners outside on a wood fire every evening.

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Morning is now the time to get jobs done in the garden before the searing heat of the afternoon leaves everything  bleached of colour and soporific in the shimmering, silvered sunlight. There is no rush, though; I love nothing better than wandering out, still pyjama-clad, with my first tea mug of the day to breathe in the freshness and beauty of the moment and welcome the gift of a new day. The air is spiced with the scents of eucalyptus and lavender, sugared with roses, honeysuckles and sweet peas.

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Swallows skim the vegetable patch just above ground level, swooping and twisting like arrowheads through the plants with split-second precision (I wish I could capture them with the camera!). Even this early, the flowers are teeming with myriad insects. Lacy coriander blooms sparkle with dainty hover flies, lavender bristles with businesslike bees and everywhere – everywhere – there are butterflies, so many different varieties floating dreamily on painted wings.

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This is the time of day to truly appreciate the garden beauties; illuminated by a soft, dappled light they take on a whole new allure, a delicate elegance that is washed out by full sunlight. Here I can see every shadowed pleat and fold, every nuance of shade and texture, every mesmerising mystery of petal and sepal, stigma and style, frond and tendril, pattern and form.

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The wild ones, too, take on a fresh flush of beauty, clothing the garden’s margins in their soft hues and rowdy brights.

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There are the cheeky chancers, popping up uninvited in unexpected places: a nasturtium trailing cheerfully amongst the beetroot plants, satin Welsh poppies fluttering in the asparagus bed, a  self-set young walnut tree (they are weeds here, no question) on the edge of the patch. How can I be anything other than enchanted by their optimistic charm?

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So, to work and the main task of the week is weeding. Hoes are handy tools but I enjoy a bit of hand weeding, even more so now that I can take my time and do it with focus and attention rather than cramming it in around a hectic working week. I love the simple physical act of getting down amongst the plants and looking at them from new angles and through fresh eyes. I relish the smell of the earth, delight in the characters of the plants and cherish the work of tidying things up a bit. There is something so fundamentally satisfying about feeling the essence of all those scientific processes – germination, transpiration, pollination, photosynthesis and the like – going on all around me, not textbook descriptions but fizzing and buzzing with real in-the-flesh life. What a wondrous, miraculous thing it is! How captivating, too, are those vegetable plants caught in the teasing play of light and shadow; here even the mundane is taken to new heights.

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Working in the garden? No, we’re unashamedly tripping the light fantastic, don’t you think? 🙂

 

Six on Saturday

At the risk of sounding like a football commentator, it has been a week of two halves here. The first part was a continuation of the awful weather we’d been having for some time, torrential rain and storms that had left so many things battered, drowned, rotted or slug-eaten. Thankfully, the last few days have shown a marked improvement and I don’t want to shout too loudly but we have even had one day with NO RAIN and some SUNSHINE.

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Ups and downs, then – here are my six for today.

I lifted several self-set nasturtium seedlings from the polytunnel a couple of months ago and potted them up to sit in the top of an old milk churn I had painted turquoise – a bright splash of summery colour to brighten a dingy corner, I thought. They have been slow to get going, but last week had at last started to make a lovely colourful impact with those fiery oranges against the blue. Then it rained and rained and rained, reducing them to a soggy, see-through, slimy mess, echoed by the geraniums and petunias. Demoralising stuff.

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This vining ‘Costata Romanesco’  courgette has had a tough time of it, too.  It is such a great heirloom variety with a nutty flavour and ridges that give a pretty fluted cross-section and we should be eating the first courgettes by now. Some hope. Battered by the rain, blown inside out by the wind, buried under a huge soil slide (we garden on the steepest of slopes where gravity needs no encouragement once the rain starts) then munched by snails and slugs – leaves, stem, flowers, the lot. What a courageous little thing it has been to lift its head and have another go in the face of such adversity. Not too many passing pollinators in the pouring rain, though.

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On a happier note, here is a something that has made my heart sing this week. Last year we planted a citrus × sinensis ‘Sanguinelli’ or Spanish blood orange. It went into the ground as a two year-old pot-grown tree and spent much of the winter and early spring shrouded in horticultural fleece, not because frost bothers us here but we had a run of violent storms that shredded anything in their path (including our polytunnel). The good news is that it survived, is putting out plenty of new growth and has opened its first flush of flowers, waxy white and deeply fragrant. Will fruit follow? We’ll have to wait and see.

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Another little beauty has started to flaunt itself along the garden fence: a rather gorgeous passiflora. This was a cheap and cheerful supermarket buy that came with a label simply saying ‘passionflower’ so I have no idea about variety. It was a miserable-looking little stick when I planted it last year, planning to fan train it along a wire netting fence. It grew like crazy but this year has only sent foliage and flowers out in one direction which makes me suspect judicious pruning might be a good idea at some point? In the meantime, I’m enjoying those flowers;  they always seem so complicated and exotic and I love that bluey-purple fringe thing they do.

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Honeysuckles are one of my all-time favourite plants and in my humble opinion, you just can’t have too many of them. So, staying with the theme of supermarket specials, here is another climber that has started to make an impact this week. Lonicera, obviously, but again no information about variety (I do go to nurseries and do things properly sometimes – honest!). Last year this did a huge amount of growing up a stone wall but didn’t produce a single flower; this year it is absolutely covered in blooms and although the flowers are relatively small, they are certainly vying with the jasmine for Scent of the Week award. Gorgeous.

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Number six this week is a complete mystery but a lovely surprise. When we moved here a couple of years ago there was a lonely carnation plant growing along the lane. It was in a very sad and sorry state, but produced flowers in such a delicate peach that I thought it was worth taking a few cuttings and spreading them around the garden (which I did successfully). Bit of a surprise then this week as I went down the steps from our kitchen door in the pouring rain to see a dark red beauty that had apparently appeared from nowhere. There had been no sign of anything other than the show-off bright pink vygies (mesembrynanthemum) growing in that spot before but the new star is very much there now, exploding with blooms that are quite small but heavily scented like clove pinks. Maybe it was lying hidden beneath the Japanese quince and hibiscus waiting for its moment or maybe it was left by the dianthus fairy. Either way, it’s welcome to stay.

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Thanks to The Propagator for hosting Six on Saturday, such a great way for gardeners from all walks of life to share their trials and treasures. Why not pop across to his site now and catch up with what everyone else is up to? 🙂