Celebrating the Solstice

I love the Summer Solstice and I never understand the negativity that can surround it. You know, that ‘Oh well, the days will be shorter now so it’s all downhill from here on’ sort of comment. Why such pessimism when there are so many beautiful months yet to come? I might be a bit of a dinosaur these days but forget the first of June: for me, summer has only just begun!

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Three years ago, when we were living in south Shropshire, we got up ridiculously early and walked to Stapeley Common with hot cheesy muffins and a flask of hot coffee. Our plan was to sit by Mitchell’s Fold stone circle and watch the sun rise on the longest day. Sadly, nature had different ideas; the cloud was down to the ground, so we ate our solstice breakfast listening to the ghostly bleats of sheep we couldn’t see and watched as the fog grew almost imperceptibly lighter. No such crazy plans this year. We’ve seen too much ground-hugging cloud and too many rain-sodden skies in the past few weeks so I feel the need for a few days of sun. It’s so easy to take that essential life-bringer for granted. Time to celebrate!

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Before I start to wax too lyrical about sunlight on petals or water, let’s start with the important stuff: food. Thanks to the tricky spring, most of our vegetable plants are several weeks behind where they were this time last year. It’s frustrating but who can blame them? They desperately needed a good dose of sunshine to help them flourish and it’s been fascinating to see the difference that a few drier, brighter days have made. Suddenly, the autumn-planted broad beans are producing a long awaited glut . . .

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. . . and the courgettes – both the no-nonsense, smooth-skinned ‘Green Bush’ and the fluted, flirty ‘Costata Romanesco’ – have leapt from soggy flowers to ripening fruits in a matter of moments.

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The ‘Crown Prince’ squash have decided to teach the neighbouring ‘Harrier’ butternuts a thing or two and have begun their inexorable march down the garden.

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On the sun-drenched terraces, the French and borlotti beans have finally lifted their miserable heads, the sweet corn has decided to give it a go and the many varieties of squash are smiling, although you’d be hard pushed to find them amongst the sunny splashes of self-set Californian poppies.

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The polytunnel residents have also shaken off their sulky huff and put in a decent effort this week. It’s all still behind, but just look at the difference now.

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There is a carpet of cheerful bright yellow melon flowers and the first demure white blooms have appeared on the peppers.

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The tomatoes – having been told several times that this year is their last chance to do something  – are, well, doing something. A very big something, as it happens. The stems have thickened into tree trunks and quite honestly, it’s all got so suddenly jungly in there that I half expect to be greeted by a howler monkey when I open the door.

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Flowers, too, have responded joyfully to the sunny skies. Roses, honeysuckle, hollyhocks, pelargoniums and lavender have all shifted up several gears.

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The ‘Polish Spirit’ clematis that went in as such a modest little twig last year has unfurled its deep velvety flowers with gusto and is making a lovely statement on the fence in front of the polytunnel.

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Along a different fence, the passionflower is singing out loudly in a profusion of exquisite blooms.

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Nasturtiums have popped up like mushrooms to create explosions of sunshine in the garden and salads alike.

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For me, there is something utterly captivating about sunlit petals and leaves and I have been happy to wander around indulging in the subtle shifts of shade, colour and pattern a little natural backlighting provides. What alluring beauties the starry courgette flowers become . . .

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. . . and it seems I’m not the only one to appreciate those shameless Californian poppies!

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It’s typical of the season that the first sweet pea to flower is a self-set one; there’s a white spider on it grappling with a hover fly – a bit gruesome, but that’s the nature of Nature, isn’t it?

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Away from the garden and what better way to celebrate the season than to get out and about and lift our faces to the sun in some rather beautiful places? We had a picnic at Playa de Pormenande where waves broke against the rocks in rainbows and crabs scuttled in and out of rock pools, their sunlit metallic carapaces glinting like armour.

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In the Parque Natural de Redes, we walked up the narrow gorge of the River Alba. Compared to some of our recent walks, this felt like a stroll in the park: 14 kilometres out and back with the gentlest of 360 metre climbs, much of which was walked on a wide, paved path. Just look at that brilliant blue sky, the sunlit greenery, the pull of those dramatic mountains; how could we resist?

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What a stunningly beautiful walk it was, encompassing so much that is typical of Asturias: flower-studded meadows of contented cows, fascinating rock formations, a clear and sparkling river and more waterfalls in a single walk than I have ever seen. Surely these must be the haunts of xanas, the beautiful mythological Asturian water nymphs, smoothing their long blonde hair with golden combs made from sunlight?

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The trees, as always, were spectacular in their lush, verdant plumage and with fairly easy going underfoot, I could wander a bit with my eyes turned upwards. How incredible to see oak and ash, birch and beech, maple and chestnut all seemingly growing out of the rocks – not little seedlings or strappy saplings chancing their hand but huge, ancient, magnificent trees.

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At the top of the gorge, waited on by fearless rock buntings looking for crumbs, we ate our picnic in a meadow full of dancing butterflies; so many sizes and colours, but it was the little blue ones like shards of summer skies that caught my eye.

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What a lovely walk, what a wonderful day out. Back at our starting point, Roger was delighted to find a map of extreme runs he rather fancies going back and doing. Well, that suits me fine; he can go off and do mad stuff in his running shoes while I pootle up the gorge again on my own. Why not? It is such a pleasure and privilege to be able to walk in that special place, and we have plenty of time . . . after all, summer’s only just begun! 🙂

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The Letter W

I don’t want to sound like I’m auditioning for a part on Sesame Street but this week really does feel like it’s been brought to us by the letter W. For starters, the weather has been warm and very wet and consequently, everything has grown like crazy which is good news because pretty much everything in the patch is still way behind where it was this time last year – a good two or three weeks, I should say.

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The downside of course is that it is perfect romping weather for slugs and snails and they are having a field day . . . field night, too, as the temperature drops so little. We are having to be very vigilant, especially round the newly transplanted young brassica plants, mostly calabrese and kohl rabi. Thankfully, plants like this ‘Greyhound’ cabbage are big enough and robust enough to cope with the occasional shredding . . .

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. . . and despite a bit of nibbling around the edges, the climbing French beans are spiralling skywards up their poles at last. This is a new variety for us – ‘Goldena’ –  but it already looks like it’s going to be as good as the other yellow podded types we’ve grown in the past.

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It strikes me as slightly weird that the lettuces are being given a wide berth, I’d have thought they would be close to the top of the beasties’ chomping priority list but we have several patches scattered around, all of which are looking just fine.

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Weeding has definitely been my work of the week. Why don’t the slimy ones tuck into that wretched oxalis, I’d like to know? Still, there’s an upside here, too, because where weeds grow like stink then so do the self-set brigade and I’ve been finding all sorts of new little treasures popping up around the garden, especially where we have mulched with homemade compost. Take this little spot (barely a square metre) at the end of the sweetcorn terrace: here there are borage, nasturtiums, calendula, verbena bonariensis, Californian poppies, comfrey, chervil, dill, coriander and a couple of very healthy looking squash all growing merrily without any intervention on our part at all. Talk about lazy gardening!

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The squash have almost certainly grown from composted seeds of the ‘Guatemalan Blue’ we grew last year; it’s an open-pollinated variety and as we also grew ‘Crown Prince’ and yellow and green butternut varieties, I’m interested to see what they produce once the bees have done their business. Speaking of which, it’s good to see the garden teeming with pollinators as the courgettes have opened their first starry yellow flowers and the second crops of broad beans and peas are looking gorgeous decked out in white.

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I’m also encouraging some pollinator activity in the polytunnel as there are other flowers in need of special attention. I’ve been too idle to train the melons up anything; the last time we grew them with any great success was in our French polytunnel where I let them trail with abandon and simply sat the fruits on wooden blocks as they ripened. It beats all that faffing about with supporting nets in my book, but the rate at which the free-for-all trailabout has started could well have me seriously regretting that decision in a week or two as I try to battle my way in through the door.

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The tomatoes are also doing what tomatoes do well in warmth and have started to look a bit jungly (note incoming melon activity on the left).

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We’re hoping that under cover in the tunnel, safe from the classic Asturian mist that spreads blight about in these parts, we will have a decent crop this year. Only time will tell . . . for now, where are those bees?

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No surprise that Thug of the Week award once again goes to the kiwi; it’s already had it’s first major lopping of the year, not that you’d notice. There is a barn under there somewhere, honest. It is so plastered in flower buds that I’m almost tempted to pay the bees to keep out of them; I shouldn’t moan, the fruit is a wonderful food, but how many thousands (and I am not exaggerating) do we need?

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Roger has been busy making a good start on our revamp of Rubble Corner. The wonky wall of snail-infested bricks has gone and he is rebuilding it to a lower level with stone. Needless to say, it hasn’t all been plain sailing and the usual messes he has had to deal with along the way (old wall filled with household rubbish, bricks nailed to timber posts, wire wrapped around everything – you know, the sort of thing that was done so well here) has resulted in a few bursts of intense muttering, probably best not repeated. Still, it really will be worth it because even though there remains plenty to be done,  it’s already looking so much better.

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I love a bit of sunshine and I’ll be happy to see the blue skies back whenever they’re ready but I have to admit there is something about the shifting light on these damp days that changes and intensifies colours in the landscape. There is so much beauty in the garden and bathed in the freshness of raindrops, the flowers are exquisite.

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The abundance of roses has taken my wedding confetti corner to new and beautiful heights this week.

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It’s always green  here – a fact I love –   but I can’t begin to convey the sheer intensity of the greenness at present and there just aren’t enough words in the English language to describe all those shades and nuances of colour (I’ve tried but it doesn’t work). Frustrated by language, I feel an urge to spin, dye and knit in every one of them, to try and capture the essence of the freshness and growth, the sheer green of it all. Instead, I’ve been pulling on my waterproofs, grabbing brolly and camera and wandering about the woodlands, letting it all wash over me. Pure pleasure.

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The wildflowers are certainly enjoying the weather and are putting on a stunning show. There have always been a few foxgloves in our meadows and down the track to the river, but never in such profusion as this year. The sound of the bumble bees is almost as astounding as the banks of dusky pink, here and there punctuated with a white rebel. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. How could I grumble about the rain in the face of such floral grace and elegance?

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Having revelled in a few days of fantastic walking when Roger’s mum was here, we really didn’t want to let the habit slide so we decided a day in the Picos de Europa mountains was called for. The Picos, it must be said, are a bit special and I have a real soft spot for them because it was there we enjoyed several happy holidays before deciding to move to Asturias. Home to iconic walks such as the Cares Gorge trail, they are unsurprisingly a honeypot for walkers but with a little bit of effort it is simple enough to find quiet routes away from the hiking hoards. With this in mind, we headed to the Covadonga lakes; the stunning and slightly hair-raising 11 kilometre road up is accessible in the busiest summer months only by shuttle bus (unless like us you’re prepared to be early birds and go up before the barriers are pulled across the road) but at this time of year it is open. Instead of driving all the way to the main car park at Lago de la Ercina, we veered off down a long and winding gravel track above Lago de Enol and set out to climb the Mirador de Ordiales path. The first part of our walk took us through lush greenery, the beech trees in their glossy prime underpinned by foaming hawthorn and a harmony of blackbirds.

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As we climbed, the landscape opened out and changed character. The broad alpine meadows swept ever upwards, littered with limestone boulders; the rubbery caw of choughs bounced off the cliff faces and vultures wheeled silently overhead on their enormous wings. We passed troupe after troupe of cattle, totally unfazed by our presence, their bells resounding in the mountain air in a cathedral of sound.

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Further on and the going got a little more difficult; it was time to watch where I was putting my feet instead of gawping at the beautiful wilderness. I love walks like this, the way they prod me out of my comfort zone and challenge me both physically and mentally. I never care whether I make it to the top or not, because for me that’s not what is important (and we knew the summit would be unreachable on this occasion anyway, due to snow). Discussing it with my brother this week, I agreed totally with the way he described the excitement of challenge and the sheer exhilaration of ‘going for it’: it’s not about reaching the top, but the trying to get there. It’s about feeling alive.

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In all honesty, I would never have reached the summit anyway as I was too busy dawdling along and poking my nose into the alpine flowers. This is a harsh and unforgiving landscape and yet like on our other recent walks, nature had planted a stunning garden of little beauties that are surely tougher than they look. I’ve never been a fan of rock gardens but these were simply perfect.

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Onwards and upwards, ever higher until our heads were literally in the clouds. Walking in the Picos when the soaring snow-capped mountains are printed against a blue sky and the stunning vistas are sun-drenched and far-reaching is an awe-inspiring experience but this damp and misty weather brought a whole new atmosphere to the landscape. Here there was emptiness, stillness, silence. This place is utterly incredible.

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At roughly 1500 metres it was obviously time to stop; not only was the cloud coming down rapidly but snow was becoming a bit of an issue. Time to turn round and head back down.

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What a wonderful walk; 8k doesn’t sound like much but the steep climb seemed to make up for any lack of distance and in the whole time we only saw three other people, all of them farmers. We’ll go back in better weather, maybe next month, and challenge ourselves to go further and higher but in the meantime as far as I’m concerned our walk in the wet wilds rounded off the Week of W perfectly! 🙂

 

 

 

 

Two years on . . .

It seems almost unbelievable that we have just passed the second anniversary of our arrival here and the start of a new and exciting adventure in our lives. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but where on earth has that time gone? How lovely for us that Roger’s mum, on her first visit to Asturias, was here to celebrate with us – and celebrate we did! A glass of chilled Cava, sparkling in the evening sunshine, seemed just the right thing to start with.

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What a wonderful excuse, too, for us to revisit some of the places that have become favourite haunts in the time we have been here and to enjoy the sheer beauty of the local area in all its May-time splendour. We walked along the coastpath from Puerto de Vega and picnicked and paddled on Frejulfe beach.

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In the Parque Natural de las Fuentes del Narcea, Degaña e Ibias we strode out in the gorgeously purpled landscape of bear country

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We scrambled up the dramatic gorge of the río Esva, accompanied by myriads of butterflies and lizards, and ate our lunch under a canopy of intense leafy greenery.

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We meandered through the pretty streets of Cudillero and enjoyed a bird’s eye view of Luarca harbour. At home, we wandered round the lanes and woodland, pottered about the garden, dined al fresco, and even managed some quiet time doing woolly things together in the sunshine (well, two of us did, anyway!)

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In short, it was a tremendous little holiday for us, too –  a sort of ‘tapas of tours’ – and we hope an appetising enough taste of Asturias to tempt mi suegra back again!

Looking at our house and patch through fresh eyes also seemed like a good time to stop and reflect on all that we’ve done over the last couple of years. In terms of house renovation, it has been an enormous project (we’ve done it all ourselves bar the new roof) and although it’s not finished, we have come a long way from our rather terrifying starting point. As this blog has in many ways been a diary of what we’ve been doing,  I don’t want to do too many ‘before and after’ photos (the horrors are all there in the early posts!) but at least these should give a taste of the quiet transformation that is taking place indoors.

Then . . .

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. . . and now.

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Outside, and to say creating a garden has been a challenge would be something of an understatement! The sheer steepness of the land makes everything difficult, so we have spent much time shifting earth and stones to build planting terraces. We’ve also had so much rubbish to deal with: hundreds of plastic bottles tied to everything, messes of wire and mesh, bedstead fences and gates, a seemingly endless supply of buried rubble and rubbish . . . yes, it’s been very hard work. However, we now have two very productive veg patches with an almost continual supply of fresh food and a polytunnel to widen our options and lengthen the growing season. Broad beans are new on the menu for this week!

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It has taken a bit longer to organise more in the way of a flower garden but that is something I’ve been addressing this year. In some ways, when I look at the veg patch I feel we’re already enjoying plenty of floral colour anyway!

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For some plants, I think it has been a case of needing time to respond to some loving care and attention in order to become established or restored to their former glory. The roses, for instance, are the most spectacular we’ve seen and we have plans to plant many more in the autumn in order to extend the colour range and add to that wonderful perfumed air.

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The lavender and geraniums I grew from seed shortly after arriving here are promising to give us the best show ever. Hyssop, verbena bonariensis and phacelia have all exploded in a cloud of blues and mauves this week to the delight of bees and butterflies alike and the newly relocated comfrey is open for bumble bee business. There is a growing sense of colourful impact, both in the flowers I have planted in troughs, churns and baskets . . .

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. . . and those flamboyant self-setters who are always welcome!

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So, what plans do we have for the coming year? Well, a makeover of the bathroom and entrance porch will see the house officially finished so in many ways this will be the first year when we can both spend most of our time outside. Yippee! This means for a start that the vegetable gardening will be far more under control as Roger reins in my exuberant and somewhat chaotic style! We are determined to close the hungry gap completely which in itself will be an interesting challenge and we have lots of plans for other outdoor projects, not to mention plenty more exploration of the local area and further afield in Spain. Our next little project is to tackle the area behind the horreo which was a former chicken run (do you remember Roger pulling that ridiculous fence down – complete with car bonnet door – using the tractor?) and has been used by us as a rubble-dumping area.

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The plan is to flatten it into an attractive courtyard area; I’ve already moved the compost heap and planted a grapevine in the space in the hope of training it up the horreo walls.

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It will of course mean knocking down this ‘unique’ wall and replacing it with a stone one but somehow we’ll find a way of coping without such an eyesore in our lives!

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It is a bit of a reminder that we still have so far to go (yes, there are more bedsteads about the place) but at least we have made a start in restoring a sense of care, nurture and respect for this beautiful spot. Two years well spent, I think! 🙂

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May musings

Over the past two weeks we have travelled over 3500 km, tracing a distance of 1150 km between the most southerly and northerly points; it has felt like being in some strange kind of time machine as we have swung back and forth through varying stages of spring along the way.

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In the high mountains of Asturias and León and the eastern reaches of Camarthenshire, spring was just a mere whisper, the softest hum of unfurling greenery, primroses and blackthorn. In the Anjou region of France, it was a complete choral work, the trees resplendent in their full summer plumage, the hedges dripping with hawthorn blossom and laburnum, the houses festooned with lilac and wisteria. Shropshire was a blizzard of cherry blossom, West Sussex a glory of bluebells, Mayenne a foam of apple blossom and Cantabria pastelled with elderflowers and valerian, ragged robin and ox-eye daisies. I love this sense of difference, the effects of latitude and altitude, topography, geology and climate that organise nature in their own way; it makes travelling and life so unpredictable and interesting!

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I enjoyed the linguistic journey, too, through Spanish, Basque, French, English, Welsh and back again. When we first moved here a little under two years ago, my Spanish was so poor that in desperation to make myself understood, I used to launch into French at every opportunity. This week, whilst chatting to a French friend I found myself – much to his amusement – constantly lapsing into my own personal mix of French and Spanish. Is it Spench? Or maybe Franish? I have no idea, but the positive thing is that my old brain has managed to make that big shift; I’ve swapped oui for sí and et for y and that in itself is progress. Learning a new language is such a rewarding and mind-opening activity and it was lovely to see how many of our family members are currently doing the same just for the fun of it. Italian, anyone? Norwegian? Why not?

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So, home again to the comparative simplicity of English and Spanish, and an Asturian spring in full green fettle under brilliant blue skies. What a difference eleven days can make! It’s startling how much things change when we’re not keeping a daily eye on them. The clouds of peach and pear blossom have been replaced by little nubs of new fruit; the new apple trees we planted are in full bloom and – very exciting! – there are the tightest of buds on the orange tree. The newly-planted grapevine has unfurled silvery leaves . . .

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. . . the kiwi is a canopy of hanging greenery once more and the figs have opened their arms to the skies.

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It’s always good to come home to an unexpected meal.

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Not just artichokes, but another good picking of asparagus, a pile of lettuce, yet more purple sprouting broccoli (the sweet corn has had to be planted on a different terrace as those brokkers plants just keep on going and going and going) and the very first sweet and tender little peas. Gorgeous!

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It’s so lovely to be back to wandering around with my trug,  picking bits and pieces for a meal, grazing and nibbling as I go. Here ‘Red Rosie’ romaine lettuce, asparagus spears, baby spring onions, mint, oregano, chives with calendula, borage and coriander flowers suggested the makings of a fresh and tasty salad. This is the sort of food we love.

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Much as I enjoy a bit of mindfulness in the garden, growing our own food always needs us to keep one eye on the future. One of the major decisions before leaving was what to do with the polytunnel, it being full of young plants and, therefore, tomorrow’s meals. Was it better to leave it open for ventilation but risk it drying out or closed to retain moisture and risk everything cooking? In the end, we opted for the closed choice; I carried up buckets and buckets of water to soak the ground, removed the staging and left everything well-soaked and sitting on the soil. Basically, it all had two chances: do or die. I love gardening and raising plants from seed is a rewarding thing to do but I really can’t get too worked up about it: if the worst came to the worst, well . . . it’s perfectly possible to buy excellent plants from Luarca market. The moment of truth: how had it all fared?

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Well, everything had thrived on total neglect, it seemed! One of the drawbacks of using homemade compost had become very obvious, too: a jungle of nasturtiums, borage, Californian poppies and squash had erupted in every corner and literally met me at the door. I wouldn’t normally moan about those beauties but the polytunnel is really not the place for them so it was time to roll up my sleeves and get stuck into sorting everything out. A busy (and warm!) morning later, the thugs were cleared out, compost raked over and aubergines, peppers, chillies, tomatoes, melons and kiwano were all in the ground. Some of the plants were a bit small but all looked good and healthy and in the usual way, doubled in size overnight. Fingers crossed for a good harvest to come . . . how different this will look in a couple of months’ time!

 

I love growing squash, particularly in a climate where they luxuriate in the long, warm season they really need to fruit well. The speed at which they germinate and grow never fails to amaze me, they are such enthusiastic doers and a wonderful food. Our faithful kitchen favourites – ‘Crown Prince’ and the butternut ‘Harrier’ had gone so well that I decided to plant them outside before we left, along with courgette ‘Costata Romeneso’ and cucumbers ‘Marketmore 76’ and ‘Diva.’ We also put up six wigwams for climbing beans; they currently look like something out of War of the Worlds striding menacingly across the garden but the first beans have germinated so it won’t be long before they are towering with lush foliage. This year I’ve planted ‘Blue Lake’, ‘Cosse Violette’, ‘Goldfield’ and ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ as climbing French beans, with borlotti ‘Lingua di Fuoco’ and the local Asturian white bean as podding varieties. We should have plenty; this is bean country, after all!

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Back to the squash story and I have once again been led astray by Anja and have probably more varieties and plants than two people could ever need. Not that I’m grumbling; like the sharing of culture and language, what a wonderful thing it is to swap seeds and growing ideas with friends in other places, especially when we are trialling some new varieties. Add Sonja to the mix, and there is going to be a bit of a three-way squash growing experience shared between Finland, Scotland and Spain this summer. ¡Estupendo!

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The kiwano (horned melon) seeds also from Anja are certainly thriving; I’ve never grown them before so I’m really excited to see how they go (and taste). The ‘Melba’ melons are looking far more enthusiastic than last year (new seed was definitely needed) so I’m hoping for great fruity happenings in the polytunnel. The cukes can all go into the garden, they are such thugs outside that I hate to think what mayhem they would cause if let loose in the tunnel . . . I’m having enough problems with self-set flowers on that score!

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To more things floral, and swathes and pops of colour have been high on my list for this year. I love the drift and flow of deep borders and a wild, chaotic abundance of flowers doing their own thing but the lie of our land makes having a true flower garden as such a bit of a challenge. It’s more a case of squeezing little beauties of all shapes and sizes into any available spaces and places and I’m having a lot of fun with that change of perspective. The few small perennials I have planted are starting to find their feet at last. The verges are currently awash with indigo granny bonnets and our little garden ones are starting to make an impact; I love their gentle grace and beauty and the way the bees get in and mix them up a bit so I’m hoping they will spread themselves around in different shapes and shades over the coming years.

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Other self-setters are establishing themselves very happily and doing a brilliant job at drawing in the pollinators..

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The herbs I’ve raised from seed – sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, hyssop and lavender – are all thriving and beginning to make the impact of foliage and flower I was after. The rosemary has flowered, the thyme is on the cusp but the sage is currently a haze of mauve flowers that are literally effervescing with bees and butterflies. Those yellows against purple are a feast for the eye!

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I’m also planting hanging baskets this year to help brighten up the courtyard and draw eyes upwards with splashes of aerial colour; the honey-coloured stone of the horreo should make a perfect backdrop, despite the awful daubed grey ‘pointing’ work that we need to remove. I last planted baskets four years ago and used an old woollen blanket to make liners; this year I was a bit stumped for an eco-friendly idea until Roger suggested trying eucalyptus bark. We certainly have plenty of it, the trees are constantly sloughing off strips like snakeskins and, soaked in water to make them pliable, they worked very well. I’m keeping it simple this year – just petunias and lobelia – with plans for more adventurous ideas next year if these are successful.

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The wilder spots of the garden continue to hum with colour in a way that makes my heart sing. Along the side of the tunnel now there is a pretty tumble of lemon balm, borage, calendula, daisies and bugle with the deep purple clematis ‘Polish Spirit’ romping away along the fence line above. This is the easiest and laziest of flower gardens!

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With the garden reined back in to some semblance of control (ha ha!), it’s time to turn our thoughts once again to the house and, more specifically, to the Great Bathroom Revamp. We’ve been putting this delightful little project on hold as the roof needs to come off for starters and we didn’t fancy life under tarps until the weather was smiling. This is the kind of job where we have absolutely no idea what we will find until we get stuck in so we have plenty of emergency materials on standby; our experience of the house so far tells us that terrible things may well be lurking behind the tiles and having to jump into the car and drive off in search of plumbing bits/ building materials / consolation beer with every disaster is a bit tiresome. The most important thing is we have a clear run to crack on and huge incentives to finish in the shape of Sam and Adrienne visiting in early June and Sarah, Gwyn, Annie and Matthew coming to stay a couple of weeks later. A guest room and a new bathroom? Wow, we’re almost getting to be quite civilised these days! We also need to put aside time to explore new walks and beaches, find the paddling pool pump and check out the ice cream shop. It’s a tough job . . .  but we’ll give it our best shot, I promise! 🙂

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Home and away

I’ve heard it said that we live a life of permanent holiday and I suppose I can see how folks might think that. Freed from the shackles of paid employment, our time is our own and that is a very wonderful thing; I certainly don’t miss the tyranny of an early morning alarm dragging me from my dreams and booting me out into the inevitable clockwork routine of a working day. There is something very lovely about having time to enjoy all that is good around us.

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That said, we work hard: we have spent nearly two years renovating a hovel into a home and, apart from the new roof, we have done all the work ourselves. The garden, too, has been a challenge, the topography of the land alone making it difficult – not to mention dealing with the mess that was left behind. It’s all the sort of work we enjoy but the problem is, we don’t stop: we just keep going, day after day, and forget to have a weekend. Our farmer friend Jairo says for him it’s always Monday, never Saturday, and we’re beginning to understand that sentiment. Time for a holiday!

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The Iberian Peninsula offers such a wide and rich diversity of landscape and culture that’s it’s a job to know where to start exploring first. We opted for the city of Ponferrada in the province of León, roughly a four-hour drive south west from home, and booked a couple of nights in a hotel close to the castle. The first part of our trip was familiar as we’d already travelled some of the road through southern Asturias, but that didn’t make us complacent: who couldn’t be charmed by such beautiful scenes as this?

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We were soon climbing high into the mountains, each hairpin opening new vistas of the green valleys below and taking us ever closer to those snow-capped peaks. This is bear country; we lingered for a while at an official observation site but there was no sign of oso pardo – no surprise, really, given how rare they are.

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It’s bare country, too, for more than one reason. We passed through a valley ravaged by the horrendous forest fires of last year, the scorched and blackened landscape standing testament to the ferocity and scale of the heat and flames; here there was no spring. Higher still, and the trees were several weeks behind ours at home, the willows pushing out little tentative furry paws, the birch still tightly coiled. We ate our picnic lunch sitting in patches of snow above a typical village, the houses scattered down the mountainside like dice tumbled from a cup. Some were in excellent condition, others rather tumbledown but something didn’t seem quite right. Listen. Listen to the soughing of the wind in the branches, the carolling of the birds, the rush of meltwater . . . No cowbells or cockerels, no dogs or donkeys. No smoke in the chimneys, no washing blowing on the lines, no chopping of wood, no digging of gardens. A tabby cat nonchalantly mooching between the buildings was the only sign of life in this silent, empty place. An ageing population and migration to the cities are changing the face of this rural landscape where the land is unforgivably steep, the soil thin and the grass, newly emerged from under deep snow, is grey and bleached. No question, life here is tough.

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A couple of kilometres further up and we reached the top of the pass close to a village where at least one house was buried under several metres of snow; no surprise to find a ski station there! As we crossed into León and dropped down the other side of the mountain, the landscape changed quite dramatically. I always think of Asturias as being like a quilt of intense greens and blues, boldly embroidered with brightly painted houses and cheerful terracotta roofs; it bursts shamelessly with colour, even when the weather is wet and grey. Here, the country was darker, more sombre, brooding. The rocks were black, the roofs grey slate,  the mountainsides clothed in dusty evergreen oaks and a moody scrub of Spanish heath and broom. No sunlit green meadows to be seen. Where forests of eucalyptus march across Asturias, here it was something heavier and more industrial; we travelled down a long, long valley bristling with quarries and mines, pylons and pipelines, slag heaps and dams.

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It wasn’t all gloomy, though. In places, the river – gorged with glacial blue meltwater – was spectacular and in one town, I just had to stop and applaud the colourful handiwork of the local yarnbombers!

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As we neared Ponferrada, the landscape opened out into a wide bowl rimmed with snow-topped mountains. The rocks and soil changed, too, to a bright rusty red. Ferrous. Ponferrada. Iron bridge. It shares the same root word with the name of our village and I like that, that sense of a shared geology and history. Around the city were vast swathes of poplar woods and vineyards studded with vines like cloves in a Christmas orange; hard to believe anything currently so black and gnarled could produce leaves and fruit.

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We headed south from the city, fancying a walk in the mountains. The village of Valdefrancos teemed with swallows skimming the river and martins jostling for space under the eaves. The storks had already established their nesting site and no-one was set to argue with them perched up there.

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An incredibly steep and sinuous mountain road followed, spiralling us up and up to the village of Peñalba de Santiago. A National Monument, this is officially one of the prettiest villages in Spain and we would drink to that; it is a beautifully restored and preserved confection of stone and slate, wood and water.

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Even the beehives were in keeping!

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We could happily hide ourselves away here for a week and walk out into these beautiful mountains every day. As it was, we settled for a single looped walk of a few kilometres, following an undulating path that crisscrossed the river and led to the Cueva de San Geniado.

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The air was heavily scented with primroses – there were literally carpets of them alongside the path – and full of butterflies, little shards of blue, orange and yellow.

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Here, too, huge clumps of the green hellebore I have been searching for nearer to home.

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The last stretch of path before the cave was slightly vertiginous but the cave itself was lofty and wax-scented. Saint Geniado was a ninth century monk, hermit and bishop who founded several local monasteries. I loved the fact that on the altar, there was a large carved madreña, the traditional wooden clogs our neighbours wear in wet weather. Even saints, it seems, need to be practical.

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For our next adventure, we swapped mountains for mines and headed to Las Médulas, the largest open-pit goldmine in the Roman empire.  We opted for another walk here but the first thing to capture our interest wasn’t so much the rock formations as the trees: hundreds and hundreds of chestnuts, planted in neat grid formation like a vineyard writ large. So many of them were ancient specimens, with enormous boles and branches and bark contorted, gnarled, almost molten; add a little atmospheric mist and we could have walked straight into a Tolkien fantasy. The Romans came here for gold; they also introduced the sweet chestnut to Britain. Could we detect the faintest ghost of the empire in the precise no-nonsense military planting of these trees?

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The mighty hand of Rome was certainly responsible for the astonishing landscape we were about to encounter. No quirk of geology or effect of erosion: this – like the long valley we drove through yesterday – was purely the result of industrial activity.

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The stratum of alluvial rock which contained the gold the Romans sought lay some hundred metres or more below the top of the mountain. In order to reach it, they dug deep vertical shafts with blind horizontal tunnels like fishbones; using a complex system of canals and sluice gates on the top of the mountain, they then flooded the tunnels and literally washed the mountain away. The spectacular rock formations here today are the bits of mountain left standing.

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This is a stunning place. Not only can you wander and wonder among the pillars and spires, but there are caves, too, and places where you can walk along high tunnels and capture a higher view. The colour of the rock is astonishing, especially set against a brilliant blue sky. What a truly awesome place.

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We decided to climb with our picnic to the viewpoint above and suddenly the true scale of the operation unfolded before us. I wondered if in two thousand years’ time, tourists of the future will be wandering in awe around the modern quarry in the distance?

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From one UNESCO World Heritage site to another, this time the Camino de Santiago (French Route) in Ponferrada, guarded by the spectacular castle. Originally a hillfort, then Roman (they were  a busy bunch), the castle was extended by the Knights Templar during the twelfth century and helped to protect the pilgrims walking the Camino. Care of the pilgrims was important; the name Ponferrada refers to the iron reinforcement of an ancient bridge commissioned by Bishop Osmundo of Astorga in the eleventh century to facilitate their river crossing. We breakfasted with a group of modern German pilgrims, footsore but cheerful, just 200 kilometres left to walk. Viel Glück!

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This is the kind of castle where you can wander at liberty and explore every nook and cranny. We walked along the walls, climbed towers, peered over turrets and through arrow slits, looked into the depths of wells and down to the Río Sil so far below. The views of the old town, the wider city and surrounding countryside were spectacular.

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In the Templars’ Library I was mesmerised by the beauty of the medieval books, the workmanship of the monks reflecting their immense skill (and eyesight). Italics and illuminations, so neat and tidy, so tiny! The colours were rich, the fine detail picked out in gold so striking. Treasure indeed. In a complete contrast of scale and medium, in the Sala de Noruega we wandered through an exhibition of huge photos of the Norwegian landscape. Looking at the pictures of Senja, I thought of Sam and Adrienne (who took their own stunning photos there last summer) and wondered how they were enjoying their trip to Oslo this week. How was their city break going, three thousand kilometres north of ours? It will be fun to compare notes when we catch up with them next weekend; that is what I love about travel, the chance to share new experiences, to tell new stories.

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Time to head home and I reflected on what a privilege it is to be able to travel; whether twenty miles or two thousand, what a wonderful opportunity to broaden my horizons and open my mind, to feel and experience new things, to look at life through others’ eyes. It isn’t always beautiful – but then real life isn’t a tourist attraction. It isn’t always comfortable, but I think a nudge out of my comfort zone now and again is a good thing; if I don’t have the right language or cultural knowledge to deal with a situation then I have to dig deep as a human being and find a way of coping. A big smile is a good start! Whatever else, it is always an enriching experience and I love that.

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Three days. Two UNESCO World Heritage sites, a National Monument and plenty of other things besides. It’s amazing how much we packed into a short time; also unbelievable that we didn’t pay for parking or an entry fee anywhere (the castle is free on Wednesdays, although we would happily have paid given the fascinating time we had there), neither were we corralled through gift shops at the exit. Everywhere had colourful and comprehensive information boards, nowhere had litter. Even more incredible, everywhere was so quiet; I suspect in the summer it will be heaving but we were so lucky to more or less have everywhere to ourselves. What a truly fantastic place this is. I think we might go back, although there is still so much of Spain to discover, not to mention Portugal . . .

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Home again, and how could things have changed so much in our short time away? Tightly furled buds had burst open in explosions of colour, the grass had grown ridiculously long; in the asparagus bed, a sudden surge of spears like serpents’ heads suggested dinner!

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In our field, no cows but four horses down from the mountain and enjoying the luxury of lush grass. These are Asturcón, a local rare breed of working horse which is one of the oldest and purest strains in the world. They have teetered on the brink of extinction but thanks to people like Jairo, they are being carefully and lovingly preserved for the future. How wonderful then, just a few hours after arriving home, to see this new little chap being born. His bloodline stretches back to the time when the Romans were moving mountains. How very precious he is. What a lovely homecoming!

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Lessons in life (and lizards)

If every picture tells a story then you can see we have been enjoying another Tale of a Hundred Shopping Trips!

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No dreaded supermarket involved this time but an urgent need for the post office and some bags of compost (it’s that time of year) saw us packing a picnic and flask of coffee once again. Bit by bit, poco a poco, we are exploring this astounding coastline and I never fail but to be in awe of its wild and savage beauty. The stunning vistas, the wide open arcing sky,  the crash and ebb of the waves, the mournful cry of seabirds and that oh-so-fresh invigorating air make my heart sing. You are never too old for a clifftop jig, it seems!

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Even better where shopping trips are concerned, we found a garden centre – quite a rarity in these parts. What’s more it’s a real one, the kind that focuses on selling good plants and seed rather than scented candles and seasonal tat. Oh, happy day! We went to buy a grapevine and came home with a beauty, a white muscat variety. We’re not planning to make our own wine (I prefer to let the Riojan experts get on with that one) but with any luck, we might just enjoy a few little bunches of dessert grapes. To me it just seems the right thing to plant in our Spanish garden and I’m hoping it will make a lovely impact trained against the soft honey stone of the horreo. The people at the garden centre were so friendly and helpful, they even pruned the vine before we left and sent us home with a bag of granular feed for it. I’m hoping it will be happy growing in a large glazed pot; certainly, within a couple of days the tight buds had started to unfurl into the promise of good things.

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Staying with fruit and not quite such a happy tale. Storms Felix, Gisele and Hugo roared through our valley in quick succession and literally tore the early peach blossom from the trees like sad pink confetti. We will certainly not be enjoying another glut this year . . . but there is hope: luckily, the blossom is staggered, so the later varieties and apricots are blooming now in much kinder weather and the pollinators are giving those delicate flowers some close attention.

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The pear trees, too, have hung on and each day brings greater clouds of snowy blossom.

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The figs have been a bit tardy but at last those fat buds are bursting and soon the trees will be decked out in their umbrella of verdant greenery.

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Taking a leaf out of our neighbours’ book, we have kept the little orange and lemon trees planted last year all tucked up in horticultural fleece over winter to protect them from the onslaught of the storms. Freed at last from their snowman shapes, we could almost sense them breathing in the spring air and spreading their glossy leaves to the sun in greeting.

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We’ve been busy working on Operation Colourful Courtyard this week. There is nothing we can do about the vast expanse of concrete here but we are so tired of the greyness of it all coupled with the general grot and mess we inherited. It is going to take some work, but we’ve had a good tidy up and I’ve started with a few bright containers . . . the first of many planned, plus hanging baskets, plus pretty much anything or any space that will hold flowers. Serious colour warning issued!

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One of the many things I love about gardening is the lessons it teaches us about life in general and the need to nurture and cultivate so many positive qualities in ourselves. At this time of year I always feel desperately impatient, urging the weather to pick up and plants to grow, grow, grow. The patches seem so empty – all that bare earth! – and it frustrates me like crazy: come on, get moving!

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Of course, I’m being unfair: things are moving, just in their own time and to the true rhythm of nature rather than my impatient expectations. For instance, the first planting of potatoes (Pentland Javelin, Divaa and a local variety) are bombing up in rows of resplendent foliage and the second plantings (Maris Peer) have popped their heads up this week, too.

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The broad beans are flowering and keeping the bumble bees very happy; their delicious scent wafts all around the garden and promises so many good things to come in just a matter of weeks. Even if I didn’t love the beans, I would grow them just for that wonderful fragrance.

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In the propagator, seedlings push and shove, jostling for space and light: it’s a veritable  mini rainforest in there.

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Older plants have to come out of their warm cossetting nursery and toughen up; the polytunnel is heaving and we have dug out the cold frame made last year. There are little plants everywhere!

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The courgettes (Costata Romanesco and Green Bush) have had to vacate the kitchen windowsill and go outside for sun therapy; they don’t seem too fazed.

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Elsewhere there is the whisper and wriggle of new growth. Take for instance the lavender plants I grew from seed; they have struggled to get established and not looked the happiest of plants but now, all of a sudden, they are off at speed. Yes, things are moving: be patient, be reassured, be happy!

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Another great lesson from the garden is that of dealing with loss and the unexpected. The stunningly beautiful Banksia rose that last year erupted in huge fountains of the most delicately gorgeous soft yellow blooms is dead. Given the size of its stem (trunk?) it seems it had simply reached the end of its life. What a shame, it was such a beauty, but that’s life – nothing stays the same. On the flipside, though, a couple of surprises which have made me smile this week. First, what I had taken to be a row of radishes in the polytunnel turned out to be a row of mixed spicy salad leaves instead. Now if you think I’m maybe losing the plot, I’d like to point out that there was a row of radish planted there, too, but nothing germinated (radish not germinating, what on earth?) and the first salad leaves to grow were extremely radishesque . . . it was only when I finally realised there was rocket, mizuna, pak choi and a host of other goodies in there, too, that the penny dropped. What a wonderful bonus salad, with a few glossy baby chard leaves, calendula petals, mint and chives thrown in for good measure and a handful of olives for sheer decadence. Fresh, spicy, zingy, zesty, scrumptious stuff (and a sun-drenched evening meant we could dine al fresco, too – what bliss).

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Moving on to surprise Number Two. In March last year we were treated to a brilliant day out at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales with Sarah, Vicky, Ben, Annie and William; the weather was bitterly cold and wet but we had a wonderful time nonetheless. The warmest place to be was definitely the Great Glasshouse where much of the planting reminded us of Asturias. For me, the highlight was the freesias, great banks of white, waxy blooms which scented the air and drew Annie’s little nose like a magnet! I am not a ‘souvenirs’ person but I have always loved to plant bits and pieces in the garden as memories of good times so I decided to plant some freesias on account of the happy day we had spent together. From a reputable firm, I bought a pack of multi-coloured corms which had apparently been heat-treated to ensure they flowered in their first summer. Ha bloomin’ ha! They didn’t flower . . . in fact, they did absolutely nothing at all. Zilch. Nada. Much muttering and cursing followed as I wished I’d settled for something else from the glasshouse, Californian poppies, perhaps? Talk about lessons in life once again: I really should have had more faith because over winter, out of nowhere, four of them popped up . . . and grew . .  . and formed buds (despite Felix and co doing their level best on the destruction front) . . . and this week, they are flowering. Maybe they think they’re in South Africa? Oh, you little beauties. They are exquisite in buttery yellow and coppery red and that heavenly fragrance is giving the broad beans a real run for their money.

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To finish, something else to smile about. When I was a child, I loved the idea of those weather stations where little people popped in and out to show you what the weather was doing. We don’t have one of those but, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Lunchtime Lizard. He lives in the rusty old metal post next to the blue seat where we often take our morning coffee or lunch as it’s currently the sunniest spot at that time of day. If there is no sign of him, then we know the weather is on the cool side; if it’s set fair and warm, however, there he is with his reliable little snout poking out of the pole. Daft, I know – but a lot more fun than seaweed and pine cones, don’t you think? 🙂

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Surprises

Life is full of little surprises, isn’t it? Take for instance the latest visitor to join the kiwi feeding frenzy. We are quite used to the frantic comings and goings of many species of bird but . . . a polecat? We don’t have a zoom lens and it is very camouflaged but if you look carefully inside the blue circle, you can just see the streak of dark fur that is the cheeky creature tucking in. It certainly didn’t hold back on filling its boots and I have to say, the blackbirds were somewhat humbled by its presence!

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The kiwi vine itself came as a surprise to a group of hikers who passed by last weekend, so much so that they stopped to take photos of it. They were walking part of the Camino de Santiago; strictly speaking, the Camino doesn’t pass our house but at this time of year when the mountain springs and streams are in full fury, it makes more sense to follow the mountain road and come down our lane than squelch down the actual path. The walkers were a jolly bunch and, enjoying the bird’s eye view we have of the village, they asked if I could point out the palace. Palace? Palace????? Um, no . . . I didn’t realise there was a palace here. Their walking guide definitely made reference to it, it would have to be a very large building; well, the largest building I could think of is a huge farm building at the bottom of our lane, not in the village but tucked out of sight around the corner – asbestos-roofed, a jumble of cattle sheds and really not very palatial at all. That surely couldn’t be what they were looking for.

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I didn’t feel I had been any help whatsoever but the walkers didn’t seem to mind, pausing to take a few photos of my birthday tulips before carrying on their merry way. My interest piqued, I decided to do a little internet detective work and blow me if the mighty cowshed really was once the Palacio del Marques de Reyes. Good grief! I’m not sure what the Marques would think of his former glorious residence now housing the young stock of a dairy farmer from the next village but I had certainly learned something new and interesting. In the photo below you can see just how close the ‘palace’ is to our house. Time to look at things with fresh eyes again, I think.

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This all served to remind me of two things. First, we still have much to learn about the immediate area and second, it’s been quite a while since we had one of our jaunts out exploring further afield (usually to soften the need to visit a supermarket). What with a big push on the house renovation, several UK trips and a bout of wintry weather, we haven’t had the time or the inclination. We are very happy at home on the mountain – it is nothing for the car to go nowhere for ten days or more – but sometimes a change of scene is welcome and this week offered a couple of good opportunities. We needed to go to Luarca to order new tyres and decided to use it as a bit of a recce trip for a day out when Sam and Adrienne visit again in May. (As a complete aside, I remember the very first time we went to the garage shortly after moving here and how terrified I was at having to speak Spanish. In fact, my Spanish was so appalling I ended up speaking with the service manager in French at his suggestion! No such problems now; no hint of nerves, everything done confidently in Spanish and even a couple of jokes, too. That must be progress 🙂 ). Anyway, tyres ordered, we headed to the nearby village of Busto. We enjoyed a good walk from here last year around the wild headland but this time we were on the hunt for a cake shop where a young Spanish patissier is making quite a name for himself locally. We aren’t really cake people but having enjoyed a slice of one of his amazing creations at a neighbour’s birthday tea recently, we think Sam and Adrienne might both enjoy a (late) birthday treat. The shop was a cinch to find, it’s in a pretty house painted in bright colours and looks very inviting; we just need to remember not to go on a Sunday as apparently the queue disappears off down the street! Pasteleria Cabo Busto

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Cakes organised, the next thing we needed was a plan for somewhere to eat them and so we headed a few kilometres along the coast to the attractive village of Cadavedo. A short distance from the village is a lovely beach set in a cove, obviously a popular spot in summer.

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On the soaring, vertiginous clifftops above we could see the Ermita de la Regalina so decided to head up there to explore. Here was the perfect place for a contemplative cake stop, such a quiet, peaceful place, the hermitage all pretty in blue and white, spectacular coastal views and a splendid horreo: quintessential Asturias, indeed!

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Even better, we found that we could pick up the coast path there so decided to have a bit of a wander and explore. For the first day of spring it was a bit chilly, although bursts of sunlight had me playing ‘hat on, hat off’ throughout the walk. Despite the cold wind, the air was soft and full of the sweet coconut scent of gorse and flitting black redstarts accompanied us all the way. Fantastic. There we are, a lovely, local day out planned for May – by which time it should be much, much warmer!

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The following day we had to go back to the garage to have the tyres fitted so decided to combine that with the dreaded supermarket visit. As the weather forecast was for wall-to -wall sunshine for the first time in days, a picnic seemed like a good plan so we packed food and flask and headed west. We had only made it to the next village when I spotted a swallow sitting on the wires. Hooray, the little beauties are back – something that always gladdens my heart! No swallows at the picnic site we found along the coast, but there were carpets of sweet violets, the air was heady with sun-warmed eucalyptus and bumble bees and we had a gorgeous view over Playa de Pormenande. Next, it was on to explore Viavélez, a typically pretty Asturian fishing village with higgledy-piggeldy white houses, breathtakingly narrow streets and a working harbour.

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It’s a real little gem and once again, the coast path passes through so there are opportunities for some great walking.

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Wherever the rest of my life leads, there are two things that will always bring me straight back to Asturias: the spicy scent of eucalyptus and the vivid blues and greens of the landscape, so intense that at times they hardly seem real. I find myself totally absorbed in the beauty (and look , no hat – it was definitely feeling warmer!).

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By the time we returned home, it was so warm in fact that we had stripped down to t-shirts. The garden was abuzz with insects, the robins and blackcaps had doubled their volume and so many flowers had opened in full bloom; it was almost as if everything – including us – was turning faces to the warmth of the sun in a grateful salutation.

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There was nothing for it but to sit in the evening sunshine and toast the arrival of spring; a couple of days late, maybe, but very welcome nonetheless. ¡Salud!

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Spring in the air

What a strange sense of déjà vu, writing yet another post on the back of a UK trip . . . and we certainly chose our week, the worst weather of winter there so far. I really struggled with the cold this time despite being wrapped up in thermals and woolly socks, and the heavy dollop of snow meant we had to seriously curtail some of our plans (although thankfully we did manage to visit everyone we had hoped to see, if only briefly). Driving home from northern France was like moving through one of those time lapse films as we steadily went forward several weeks in a few hours. The weather here in our absence wasn’t overly warm for Asturias but spring in all its glory has certainly arrived, even though it doesn’t officially start until 20th March (there’s a countdown clock on our local weather forecast!) We’re back to stunning sunsets, for a start.

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There are primroses everywhere: carpets and carpets of them tumbling down banks and clothing the grass verges with their pale beauty. They have spread themselves around our patch like crazy since last year and have popped up in some unexpected places. I love their sweet, optimistic faces and gentle scent and find myself wandering purposely past them to breathe in that evocative sense of spring. What a precious little moment of mindfulness!

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There was plenty of bird activity in the garden before we left but that seems to have changed up several gears in the last couple of weeks. The dawn chorus is ringing across the valley loud and clear and there is much frenetic activity around our patch. We have a great bird’s eye view of part of the kiwi from our kitchen window; as you can see from the photo, the vine is still literally dripping with fruit – we have been harvesting them since November.

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I have been distributing them in their hundreds around the neighbourhood again this week but we still we have far more than we know what to do with. The birds are certainly helping out with that one though, and the vine is heaving with blackbirds, great tits, robins and blackcaps (less raucous species choose to eat more privately behind the barn); what amuses me is the way that some of the blackbirds seem to expend far more energy belligerently defending their chosen kiwi than they gain from eating it!

Something they definitely refused to eat were the summer raspberries which were growing here when we arrived. I’ve given the fruit every chance but last autumn, I decided to lift and compost the canes. The fruit was totally tasteless (the blackbirds were in agreement on that one) and, much as I like raspberries, eating them seemed a fairly pointless activity. This week, I’ve replaced them with a couple of ‘Autumn Bliss.’ Mmm, now we’re talking! I actually far prefer the deep colour and heady flavour of autumn raspberries anyway so I’m very happy to have them back; also, they don’t need all the faffing about with training up things that summer varieties require and they should provide us with a fresh fruit straight from the garden that fills the gap between the last picking of pears and the first kiwis. The plants are small but I suspect they won’t stay that way for long given our fabulous growing climate. Perfect . . . just don’t tell the blackbirds.

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Something else we’ve planted this week are a few Jerusalem artichoke tubers. We’ve grown these for years and have always rated them as a great winter vegetable, happy to sit in the coldest, wettest, most frozen ground and provide a delicious, starchy, versatile food that is always reliable. I love that caramelised thing they do in a roasting tin! In our Shropshire and mid-Wales gardens, they were serial spreaders; in France they reached for the sky and flowered in a glorious burst of sunflower heads. I am ever so slightly nervous about unleashing them in an Asturian garden, but we have given them their own terrace so hopefully they won’t go too mad and we shouldn’t need the machete until next year.

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Sticking with tubers, I planted the first batch of potatoes before we left – ‘Pentland Javelin’, ‘Divaa’ and the local spud (variety unknown) – and this week Roger has added a few rows of ‘Maris Peer’. All early varieties, there’s no point in growing maincrop because of the blight problem here. Ditto tomatoes, which have their absolute last chance to perform this year. The plan is to plant them in containers of sterile soil as we did last year and keep them under cover in the polytunnel, protected from that warm blight-bearing mist. I’ve planted eight different varieties in the propagator and it will literally be do or die for them in the summer. To be honest, if we can’t grow our own tomatoes it really isn’t a big thing; we live in a country that grows spectacular sun-drenched tomatoes in every shape, size and colour imaginable and they are as cheap as chips to buy. Far more important and exciting that we can stroll out and pick our own peppers, cucumbers, melons and aubergines – on which note, the latter have gone ever so slightly berserk while we were away. All three varieties have germinated and we have around 30 healthy little plants (which is waaaay too many, really). They look so happy, I don’t have the heart to tell them that the awful out-of-the-propagator-and-toughen-up moment is looming . . .

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No need for pampering the roughty-toughty peas, the batch I planted before our trip is already pushing fresh green shoots through the ground. So is something else and I am soooooo excited about this. Having nurtured these plants from seed and carted them around several gardens, at long last I think we might just get our very first asparagus harvest this year. Now that will definitely be something to celebrate. 🙂

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Of course, with gardening (and life in general), there is usually a fly in the ointment: for us this week, it came in the shape of Storm Felix which announced its energetic arrival by tracking up the coast at 140km/h. Amazingly, there was no damage at all here but 6am on Sunday morning found us having to lash the polytunnel down by torchlight in a bid to stop it taking off down the valley.

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Oh, how we wish we had left the wretched thing in the shop and stuck to the tried and trusted designs we’ve had in the past; at the time, it seemed like the perfect tunnel to squeeze into the tight space we had and let’s face it, the location in theory couldn’t be more sheltered. Ha ha! Once again, thank heavens for the resident engineer who has redesigned and modified various aspects as well as hauling several tonnes of soil from the field with which to well and truly bury the not-generous-enough polythene sides. Fingers crossed, it will stay put for now . . . we are planning a major rethink in the autumn. At least everything inside is looking rosy – including the ‘Red Rosie’ romaine lettuce.

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So back to happier things . . . and what a truly heart-warming sight greeted our eyes on our return. True to his word, Jairo had left us a big pile of manure, the mucho cucho we had discussed last year. Once again, I feel so very blessed to have such kind neighbours here. I love a pile of muck and was quite happy to get stuck in with Roger, moving it to a couple of locations in the garden where it can sit and rot down over summer. I love the fact that this has come from cows eating the grass grown on our fields and the immediate surroundings; it’s not ‘waste’, but a wonderful raw, organic material, perfect for feeding the soil and the essential life it contains. In turn, it will encourage strong and vigorous growth in the vegetables we plant, which will then provide us with fresh and healthy nourishment for our bodies. What an amazing reminder of the connection and interdependence of everything; what a true affirmation of the wonder of life itself. Yes, I really do love a pile of muck.

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I also love a pile of purple sprouting broccoli and our handful of plants has developed into a mini forest of gorgeousness over the last fortnight. No such thing as too much, I could eat this stuff until the cows come home.

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The tulip bulbs I was given for my birthday in December hold much promise of spring colour; they have grown steadily over the past months but what a surprise to find the first flower already! It’s a beautiful bloom but in its enthusiasm to flower, it seems to have forgotten about growing a tall stem first!

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On the subject of gorgeous things, the first delicate blooms have opened on the peach trees. They have such a simple beauty and somehow seem too fragile to cope with even the slightest breeze, yet alone the attentions of the bumble bees which adore them. I’m no longer deceived, though – these are tough little beauties which promise such sweet, delicious, golden treats in the summer. Treasure indeed. 🙂

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Coming home to Paradise

Exiting Asturias airport, travellers pass a huge hoarding displaying a beautiful panoramic photo of the Asturian mountains and the caption ‘Vuelve al Paraíso’ – come back to Paradise. For us, it certainly feels that way; there is such a lovely sense of homecoming and, nestled back in the peace of our green valley, it is hard to believe there is a world of hustle and bustle, cars and concrete out there! It’s even better when there is such a definite taste of spring in the air.

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It is raining today, torrential downpours that swamp the mountains in cloud and skitter off the barn roof in huge raindrops like marbles. No surprise, it is only the beginning of February, after all. That said, ‘winter’ here is nothing like we would recognise or consider normal – it’s short and sweet, very mild and gentle and the days when we can’t get outside are few and far between. Recent days have been truly beautiful, warm and sun-drenched, so naturally the garden has beckoned.

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The polytunnel has been officially finished for some weeks and we wasted no time in putting it to work. Roger made a path edging using old timbers left in the barn, then laid a path using stones we dug out when levelling the patch for the tunnel and a top layer of broken roofing slates.

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The staging is an old door, freshly painted to keep it waterproof, sitting on a couple of decorating trestles. The whole lot can be removed later in the spring when we’ve raised seedlings and are ready to plant in the ground. So far, I’ve planted trays of ‘Greyhound’ summer cabbage, ‘Litte Gem’ lettuce and ‘Ailsa Craig’ and ‘Bedfordshire Champion’ onions, along with a few tall pots of sweet peas. Roger has asked if there’s a reason why I planted more than 100 cabbage seeds when there are only two of us and one cabbage easily does more than one meal . . . Whoops! Put it down to the sheer excitement of having a new polytunnel, my love, and remember that cabbage is really, really good for you. 🙂

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Yes, I will probably have to rein in my exuberance if we aren’t to drown in vegetables this year but what a happy sight to see the first little crops appearing!

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Beyond the tunnel, we’ve had one of those satisfying weeks where lots of big jobs have been done – not the general ticking-over maintenance sort of things, but structural changes that make such a difference and help to tidy the whole place up. I’ve finished forking over the entire vegetable garden, tickling in the compost I spread a few weeks ago. Oh my word, what a great job the worms have done for us; the soil is beautiful and I’m itching to plant. (Patience!) I cleared a scrappy patch of grass and weeds at the top of the main veg patch and Roger made a path edging from old terracotta roof tiles; here we’ve planted our beautiful ‘For Your Eyes Only’ anniversary rose which I hope will be happy to put roots down into the ground at last. We will be able to enjoy its exquisite beauty from our seating area (also on the list for a makeover this year). It bloomed three times last year – what a star!

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We’ve also been planting fruit trees, something that always makes my heart sing. We have had to take out several old fruit trees which were diseased or dead and planted in silly places but it has always been our intention to more than replace them. Creating an orchard area and extending the range of fruit we grow here is an ongoing  priority. So, we have put a ‘Royal Gala’ dessert apple and a ‘Reine Claude d’Ouillins’ yellow gage plum in the larger orchard area and a ‘Conference ‘pear and a Spanish ‘Picota’ cherry variety below the house. They are all very sturdy trees, almost as tall as me and at eight euros each, tremendous value for money. Fingers crossed for some beautiful blossom and delicious fruits to come . . .

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Another ongoing project is creating terraces to make gardening easier. In many ways, we have become used to working on a steep slope but terraces certainly help, not least to keep the soil at the top of the garden. It’s hard work, especially as all the stone has to be hauled, but Roger has made a great job of replacing a temporary earth bank with a smart stone wall at the top of what was the ‘squash patch’ last year. That now gives us three decent terraces and a large slope below for planting in this area of the garden, as well as my little ‘salad patch’. Needless to say, I have already filled it all in my mind . . . and that was before the gift of some unusual squash seeds from my lovely Finnish friend. This will be an interesting project to compare crops at opposite ends of Europe, but if I am to do it full justice, something tells me I might need to borrow a little bit of field from the cows!

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We have also started to tackle the fencing down the side of the lane. This is very typical of the messes we inherited here, no bedsteads this time (thank goodness) but the usual pickle of rotten posts, metal building props, sagging wire mesh, rusty barbed wire and piles of building rubble. Having laid the hazels into a hedge further down, we are planning to take out the old fence and open up some more garden to the lane but the top part needs to be fenced off to keep wild boar out. We are putting in a simple wire fence which will look much tidier and also create a strip of border on the lane side just perfect for flowers. Hopefully, a splash of colour will look far more attractive than the previous eyesore.

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On the subject of flower borders, I’ve been busy trying to sort out the area on the horreo path ready for planting. Roger told me I would never dig out that huge hydrangea root and although we both knew he was right, my own particular brand of pig-headed stubbornness saw me passing several hours in the trying. Eventually, I had to admit defeat and no wonder: in the end, it took a crowbar and rope attached to the tractor to heave it out!

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The ‘border’ hasn’t been gardened for years and is a complete mess of brambles and other horrors, as well as the inevitable piles of building rubble (how can one property have so much rubble?) so it’s slow-going. It’s interesting, too, teetering on the edge above the courtyard – no time for vertigo – but bit by bit, a border is appearing and I am having a happy time planning the planting. Nothing too tall or boisterous, just lots and lots of gorgeous colour and scents. First, however, there is another hydrangea root to tackle where I’ve parked my fork in the photo . . . oh, good.

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One of the benefits of the mild winters is that we are never without flowers or insects visiting them, but this week there has been a noticeable increase in activity: the garden and surrounding countryside have been alive with honey bees and bumbles as well as large yellow and peacock butterflies. How can I not let pak choi go to seed or borage set itself where it wants when they are such valued food sources for these busy beauties?

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The birds are busy, too. There are several resident robins outsinging each other in glorious competition, blackcaps trilling in the kiwi vine, great tits and blue tits flirting and fighting over nestboxes, resplendent bullfinches nipping the buds off the peach trees, a host of little green warblers fidgeting through the trees and mistlethrushes calling loud and clear from the woods. The valley below echoes with the rush of the river, the sound of lambs and the gentle murmurings of village life as folk tend their gardens and turn faces to the sun; in the soft, evening light, clouds of tiny insects dance and a flock of long-tailed tits chatters merrily around the garden. Ah, Asturias – paradise indeed!

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Tunnel vision

We have been enjoying such lovely mild weather of late that there was nothing for it but to down the carpentry tools and paintbrushes and head outside. Even though the real winter is still to come, there are little signs of spring everywhere.

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It has been truly wonderful to be able to eat some meals outside, too. We enjoyed a barbecue to celebrate New Year and al fresco lunches have been a lovely bonus: spicy squash, leek and bean soup with spelt and seed rolls make a perfect gardeners’ lunch at this time of year!

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With sound progress being made on the house renovation front and the vegetable garden more or less under control, it’s been good to turn our thought to other outdoor projects. There is so much we would like to do here – years and years of ideas, in fact – it’s a case of prioritising and making a Grand Plan for what we would like to achieve this year. High on the list is sorting out the courtyard area between the house and horreo and it was a great feeling to chop and stack the last of the old roof timbers and give the whole lot a good tidy up.

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We have saved some huge slates to make a tidier seating area at the garden end and I have plans for lots of troughs and tubs of flowers, as well as some hanging baskets to pretty the area up. The concrete steps and path up to horreo need attention but I decided to start with the ‘border’ that runs along the top of the wall.

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The large concrete tank behind takes water from the spring to the cattle trough so it has to stay but is due a makeover – removing the ivy and giving it a coat of white paint to match the house. It will make a good backdrop for planting: there are already some decent clumps of calla lily and a lovely selection of wild flowers directly beneath it but the border in front needs a complete revamp. I’ve talked about the hydrangeas here before: where they grow in huge swathes of indigo and magenta, I love them . . . but ours are a very insipid bluey white and just two of them dominate that whole border and make it very hard to get to the horreo (believe me, that path is tricky enough as it is!). So, I’ve cut them down to ground level and now begins the difficult job of digging them out – this could take me several weeks! My plan then is to clear the whole area, feed the soil and plant smaller things for a much greater and prettier splash of colour this year.

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Plastic bottles seem to be something of a hot topic at the moment and walking up the lane I was reminded once again that there was still one fence line strung with bottles that we had yet to clear. When we moved here, there were bottles like this everywhere, hung to deter wild boar (which is a bit of a joke, since there is a very clear and well-worn trotter track right under this particular line of bottles!). It’s a job that’s been needed doing for ages and was done in a jiffy: string cut and removed and bottles piled in a trailer and taken down to the village recycling point. That’s better!

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There have been a few general garden jobs to do, too, such as pruning damaged branches from the peach trees, a good bonfire to get rid of old growth I’d cleared round the garden that was too big to compost and some repair to the squash terraces (more stone walls going in this year). I had a good tidy up in the little herb patch at the entrance to the veg garden and was pleased to find the mint is spreading just as mint does under the peach tree and new little seedlings of chives and parsley popping up everywhere. We have been picking herbs here without a break, the coriander happily self-sets over and over and the chervil has gone berserk!

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This is such a cheerful little herb, so delicate to look at but mighty tough in character; I’ve grown it outdoors all through British winters so it’s very happy here. We don’t eat huge amounts of it but it’s perfect for a little pinch of fresh, green flavour and I love it in winter slaws. It has created quite a carpet, though, and will have to be reined in to make room for other things when the time comes.

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Another job this week has been pushing twiggy hazel sticks in around the early peas. I’ve held off as long as possible as we had such big problems with blackbirds last year; they had a magnetic attraction to the hazel ‘hedge’ and had a lot of fun pulling up the tiny plants. Luckily, they do seem otherwise occupied at the moment, marauding through the kiwi vine in the belief that they have first shout (as if there isn’t enough fruit to go round!) so I’m hoping the peas will be safe. The broad beans have been lagging behind a bit but my goodness, they have caught up rapidly over the last few days.

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We are still eating regular helpings of leeks with plenty left to come, and there are some other delicious delights to enjoy, too.

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So to the biggest story of the week . . . our new polytunnel. We are great polytunnel fans and this has been on our to-do list ever since we moved here, but it has taken time to organise the ground for it (remember the kiwi prison camp we had to dismantle?) so we have needed to be patient. This is the fourth tunnel we have put up and being the smallest with ready-shaped polythene, it should have been the easiest of the lot. Ha bloomin’ ha! I don’t mean it in a boastful way, but we are pretty practical people; between us we can renovate a house, strip down an engine, sew a bridal gown, grow all our own vegetables and turn them into interesting dishes . . . but this one really had us stumped at times.  The instructions optimistically stated that it would take two people 30 minutes to complete the construction, using only the toy spanners included in the kit. Even as seasoned polytunnel builders we felt this was highly unlikely . . . and after the allotted half an hour had come and gone several times, downright impossible. To be fair to the Chinese manufacturers, I understand that when selling their product worldwide it makes sense to dispense with languages and use diagrams and numbers for the instructions instead. However, it helps if there are plenty of diagrams and they are clear to follow. Also, I’d be interested to know if the alleged 30 minutes included the time needed to fetch a drill and punch out missing holes or fetch a file and file off many, many metal spurs which prevented the tubes from fitting together (neither of these steps were indicated in the diagrams). The base went together fairly swiftly; you can see how this 3m x 4m model is the absolute biggest we can squeeze into the space, the sum total of our flat land here!

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Ah, then for the rest of the frame and more frustrated moments than I care to mention. Not for the first time, I thanked my lucky stars that I am married to an engineer because when things like this go wrong, my inclination is to kick them, then stomp off with a sore toe to put the kettle on. Roger, on the other hand, calmly ponders the problem and applies rational mathematical reasoning and practical logic; he, too, then gives it a hefty boot but in just the right place and with precisely the amount of force that the stubborn thingummy drops perfectly into alignment without another thought. Somehow, against all odds and with many coffee breaks, the frame was finished.

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Now for the polythene and I’d like to share the instruction for this phase . . .

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No, very definitely not OK! This was the stuff of nightmares and quite honestly I found myself wishing for a good old-fashioned rectangular sheet of polythene to wrestle and stretch and pleat instead of this ready-shaped beast. Eventually – obviously we had to make up our own instructions so this all took time – the cover was on and stretched as much as is possible with this type of model. In the illustrations, the bottom of the polythene sat tidily and happily on the ground, ready to be rolled up and slotted neatly into the S-hooks when extra ventilation is required. Now this might work well on paper or in a showroom but on the side of an Asturian mountain? Really? One decent gust of wind and the whole lot would take off and fly up the valley. Time for Modification Number 27 . . . bury the base and polythene edges under plenty of soil. We’ve never had a side-opening tunnel anyway as open doors work well enough for ventilation. I removed the S-hooks and relocated them to the central roof bar where they will be perfect for starting hanging baskets off (and Roger will bang his poor head on them and curse every time he goes into the tunnel, it’s a sort of tradition we’ve had over many years). So there we have it, one brand new polytunnel ready for action.

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Thirty minutes? Try a day and a half! Anyway, now the chaos is over what we are left with as far as I’m concerned is twelve square metres of planting paradise. I had hauled in several loads of well-rotted manure before we started and as the ground has been dug over several times, the soil is deep and teeming with worms which always makes me joyful.

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We will make a stone path down the middle, as narrow as is practically possible to maximise planting space. We have plans for a removable trestle bench so that we can start off trays of seedlings and young plants in spring with early salad crops in the ground, then once the bench is out, plant up with the summer heat lovers: tomatoes (last chance for them this year), peppers, chillies, aubergines and melons. Summer over and we will plant some more patches of salad crops for autumn and winter. Oh yes, I do love a polytunnel . . . but please don’t ask me to put up another like that one, at least for a while! 🙂