September, softly

Autumn might have officially arrived but summer still calls the tune here. These days are so beautiful, the landscape a wide canvas of vibrant greens and blues, gilt-edged with sunlight.

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My need to be outside and drink it all in is overwhelming. You can get tipsy on this warmth, drunk on the fresh air laced with the spicy scents of sun-warmed pine and eucalyptus, or the sweet wild mint where the cattle tread. Nature’s aromatherapy. It’s intoxicating. I find myself drawn again and again up the bosky lane, into the green-glossed woodland, still so lush and full; it’s barely flirting with the idea of autumn yet.

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I feel the allure of the coast, too, like the inexorable pull of the tides. We wandered along the coastpath, eating our picnic perched high on a clifftop, watching the waves hurl themselves against the black rocks in a fury of foam and spindrift. Don’t be fooled by that sullen sky: it was 28C and a little cloud cover was a blessing!

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Holidays over, the beach was deserted save for a few other wanderers and the usual flock of proprietary gulls; I love the emptiness of it all, the wildness of this rugged coastline, the salty, ozone breeze, the untamed, feral energy of the ocean.

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There is something about wide open spaces at this time of year that creates a huge burst of energy within me, a rising tide of childlike exuberance and joy that makes me want to run and shout and turn cartwheels for the sheer love of being alive. One day, I’ll grow up. Maybe.

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Home again, and there was a restless fidgeting about the squash patch, too, a definite hardening of stems and shrinking away from plants that suggested something was afoot. Time to harvest those bountiful fruits before they started to do the job for themselves. Our lane is indescribably steep (which is why it’s surfaced with ridged concrete rather than tarmac) and it is no exaggeration to say that several kilos of squash bowling down the mountainside in a bid for freedom could cause untold damage, possibly fatal. As I am extremely fond of our neighbours, that is a thought too dreadful to contemplate so it was without doubt time to get busy. Operation Squash Harvest happens in two phases. First, collecting them from various patches and places and gathering them all in the courtyard (the only flat area we have) ready for washing. This took me some time, partly because so many of them weighed more than a small child and partly because they were spread far and wide. In fact, I even ended up slithering up and down the meadow several times to retrieve a number of sizeable ‘Crown Prince’ which had leapt the fence and were heading for Portugal. Jairo’s gorgeous cows watched me with a hint of disdain in their liquid chocolate eyes as if to say, ‘Silly Moo’ (in Spanish, obviously). Quite right, too. After what felt like a pretty comprehensive workout, it was time for a roll call.

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On the left, thirteen ‘Crown Prince’ and five ‘Self-set in the Casa Victorio Compost Heap’ (we think a cross between ‘Guatemalan Blue’ and ‘Crown Prince’); on the right, six ‘Russian Pink Fairies’ (if you’re thinking dainty Anna Pavlova in gauzy pastel tutus, forget it; we’re talking Olympic shot put champs here); two ‘Olive’, one of which is a mutant torpedo; two ‘Moranga Coroa’; one ‘Lumina’; one ‘Georgia Candy Roaster’; one ‘Zapalo Plomo’; four butternuts, either ‘Harrier’ or ‘Hunter (we’ve already eaten several straight from the garden); finally, one rather pathetic ‘Redondo di Tronco’ which came as a bit of a surprise as the plant appeared to die some months ago.  There are more to come, of course; they will appear as the foliage dies back – I’ve already added another ‘Moranga Coroa’, another ‘Olive’ and several butternuts to the haul. Phase Two involved carrying each and every one up far too many steep steps to the horreo and organising them onto the balcony where they can cure in the sunshine over the next few weeks. Hard work, yes – but what a wonderful sight to behold, and once again I was touched by that miracle of gardening that starts with a handful of insignificant-looking seeds and ends in an abundance of fresh, wholesome food.

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Much as I love a touch of mindfulness, the business of seeds means gardeners always need to have one eye on the future. To that end, I’ve been planting the polytunnel with crops that should give us little fresh pickings all through winter: mixed salad leaves, spicy baby leaves, mizuna, rocket, wild rocket, spring onions, rainbow chard, beetroot and kohl rabi. It’s our first complete winter with a tunnel here so it’s all a bit of an experiment; I’m excited to see what happens and hopeful that we can keep the bugs and beasties away.

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There’s been a frenzy of activity in the village bean patches this week so naturally I felt the need to follow suit. The climbing borlotti beans are still ripening and creating a rather fabulous splash of colour against a backdrop of rusty sunflowers but the Asturian beans were definitely ready for harvesting. The traditional method used here is to strip the whole plants from the poles or strings up which they’ve grown and hang them in tidy bundles on horreo balconies to dry completely. It is such an efficient and effective way of doing things, not least because it saves teetering on a ladder on a steep slope, trying to pick beans several feet above your head. This begs the question as to why the latter method is precisely the one I’ve been using and I have to admit it all comes down to organisation (or possibly, a distinct lack of it). Instead of drying the beans, we prefer to freeze them for the simple reason that it avoids those frustrating ‘aaaargh!’ moments in the winter kitchen when we have planned to cook fabada – that most comforting and traditional of Asturian dishes – only to find we’ve forgotten to soak and pre-cook the very ingredient from which it takes its name.

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Sitting and podding the beans in the afternoon sunshine is a seasonal pleasure, accompanied as I am by the soporific buzz of bumble bees, the lazy flutter of peacock butterflies and the melodic scales of the robins’ autumn song. I’d forgotten how lovely these beans are, so big and creamy and delicious, not tasting quite like anything else.

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There is an abundance of chillies, too, setting the garden and tunnel alight with their flaming brilliance. I’ve been freezing them in piles; if I’d been a bit more attentive to labelling earlier in the year, we could have separate cayenne and jalapeno bags but as it is, it’s pepper pick ‘n’ mix time. I’m drying some, too and what a wonderfully therapeutic task it is, sewing them into strings (yes, yes –  I probably need to get out more).

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There is something so wonderfully fundamental about gathering a harvest, such a basic yet significant activity, a rapturous festival of the miracle of nature. There have been many times this year when I have doubted the promise of plenty and yet here it is once more, food in abundance. Squash, onion, beans, chillies . . . soup mix in a bowl, the kind of ready meal I love.

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It almost makes me hanker after those cooler days with the woodstove lit, the enticing smells of comfort foods emanating from its soothing depths . . . but not yet. Just look at those bright blue skies and luxuriate in that balmy heat. Autumn? No thanks, I’m definitely not ready yet!

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Blogging again? As if! :-)

Since deciding to have a break from blogging several weeks ago, I’ve been surprised in some ways at how little I’ve missed it. In part I think this is because we have been so very busy; summer was a bit tardy in arriving here so we have been (and still are) shamelessly indulging in all the pleasures and easy living that sunshine and wraparound warmth bring from dawn to dusk.

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We have watched the sun rise over the Galician sea and wandered along wild-waved beaches amongst the oyster catchers and surf dudes.

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We have trailed up steep river gorges and scaled soaring peaks; if nothing else, living in Asturias is certainly curing me of vertigo!

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We have explored wild heady spaces and fascinating cultural places. We have enjoyed fantastic excursions and wonderful meals with guests staying here – a holiday for us, too! We have cooked outdoor breakfasts and brewed coffee up mountains and by the sea; we have luxuriated in relaxed supper evenings with local friends.

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We have run hard, too, training in the cool of morning and competing in the heat of the day and winning two more trophies for the collection. Mine was simply for turning up – note my podium loneliness, all the sensible grannies had stayed at home (that was one tough race) . . .

IMG_2945.JPG. . . but Roger’s was a hard won victory. After a year out through injury, Mr Speedy is back on form!

 

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Yes, too busy to blog . . . but at a certain level I have to admit I have missed the fun and buzz of writing and all the crafting and shaping and wordsmithery it requires. More importantly, I have realised this week (whilst looking back to see when we were eating the autumn flush of figs last year)  that not blogging means I have lost a really useful resource – the diary that it was always designed to be in the first place. I don’t have the patience to keep a garden notebook but a quick flick through earlier posts can be a very handy guide when it comes to plans for seedtime and harvest next year. So, what to do? Well, for the time being there is nothing for it but a quick occasional garden update so at least I will have a reference for this time next year. As this will mean more photos than words it will force my hand very soon, anyway; I am fast running out of free space on this site and will be faced with a decision of what to do next. Delete the whole blog? Draw a line under it and leave it for posterity? Upgrade and continue with something bigger and better and advert-free? Who knows . . . but in the meantime, back to business.

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The equinox looms but we would be hard-pressed to find many signs of autumn’s imminent arrival: no falling leaves, no fungi, no misty mornings, no woodsmoke. There is, of course, a subtle shift in light levels and everywhere is swathed in silvered spiderings whilst the warmth of afternoon and evening sunshine releases the fragrant perfume of golden Japanese quince so typical of the season.

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The garden has that languid end-of-summer feel about it, all straggly and strung out and overblown, and yet still it heaves with colour and scent and harvest. We’ve done better this year in terms of keeping a succession of crops going; last year, we had no lettuce after July, this year we have harvested them without a break and the next lot are looking happy nestled between the basil and leeks in the shade of a peach tree.

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Collecting vegetables for dinner is child’s play, every trug a sumptuous artist’s palette of sun-warmed colours and flavours.

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Our September salads are as pretty as a picture; here red oak-leaved lettuce, cucumber, peppers (green romano and yellow banana), Florence fennel, spring onions, basil and chives all gathered from outside and decorated with borage, nasturtium, coriander and chive flowers. Summer is definitely still in the air and on the plate.

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This time last year I was clearing the ground ready for our new polytunnel; now what a treat it is to wander in there daily to harvest aubergines, several varieties of peppers and the mother lode of cayenne and jalapeno chillies, red as rosehips and hot as hell.

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I’ve cleared the other side of the tunnel and forked in a barrow of muck ready for cooler customers, the salads, oriental leaves, spring onions, chard, kohl rabi, chard and ‘Douce Provence’ peas to see us through to spring.

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We’ve been harvesting onions, too. These are a mix of ‘Ailsa Craig’ and ‘Bedfordshire Champion’ and what a sad start the seedlings had in spring, going into the ground as tiny green threads on a wing and a prayer. Have faith, gardener, let nature do its thing . . . we have just lifted our best onion harvest in years!

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At a rough count, 150 flavoursome beauts, some of which weigh the best part of a kilo and will do several meals. Stringing them in the shade of the horreo and the company of a lovely assistant was a pleasant afternoon’s activity; hauling them up the steps to hang on the horreo balcony was a decent cardio workout! Mmm, I can smell those comforting soups, stews and roasts already . . .

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On which subject, now for another of our winter staples: squash. Looking back at last year’s post, I said I was going to have to rein in my squash-growing enthusiasm this year; well, that didn’t happen, then. We have had a couple of small ‘Hunter’ (or were they ‘Harrier’?) butternuts already but the main harvest is yet to happen. Needless to say, the usual mayhem has ensued. Even in the more -um- controlled patch, our favourite ‘Crown Prince’ has climbed into the lane and across the field, leaving plump fruits dangling in mad places as it goes.

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That’s nothing compared to the happenings in what I fondly call ‘Anja’s Patch,’ named after my Finnish friend, the Queen of Squash who encourages me in this madness by sending packages of unusual seeds that I just have to plant. To be fair, the most vigorous beastie there is actually homegrown, a self-set plant that emerged from the compost heap, crossed a terrace full of beans, travelled down the orchard (narrowly missing the young lemon tree) and is currently halfway up a walnut tree. Without a wider-than-wide-angled lens, it’s impossible to capture the scale of this chaos; the bit in the photo is literally the tail-end which is currently driving the strimming maestro crazy (as if cutting the grass on that slippery slope isn’t hard enough).

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On the upside, it does appear to be a cross between last year’s ‘Guatemalan Blue’ and ‘Crown Prince’ so should make excellent eating.

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Prize for the most prolific fruiter goes to the Russian ‘Pink Fairy’; it should also win the award for the biggest misnomer in the garden – trust me, there is nothing tiny, delicate and Tinkerbelesque about those giants. In fact, like ‘Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater’, I’m seriously considering turning a couple of them into overflow accommodation.

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Should I mention the torpedo-sized ‘Olive’ draped menacingly over the sweetcorn terrace? Casual observers have suggested that if fired from a trebuchet it would easily take out a castle wall.

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As the foliage slowly starts to die back so other characters appear, including the gracefully pearlescent ‘Lumina’ and the weirdly warty ‘Zapalo Plomo’. Ah, it’s such good fun. Kiitos, Anja!

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Goodness knows what the final count will be but of one thing I’m certain: wrestling that lot up onto the sunbathing balcony of the horreo when the time comes will make eight strings of onions seem like a stroll in the park.

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So I failed on fewer squash but I have fared better with my other resolution, to introduce more colour into the garden this year. No pun intended, but creating a viable flower garden on a vertiginous mountainside has been a very steep learning curve for me. No flat places, no wide patches, no deep soil: forget those classical drift and flow cottage garden perennial-heavy borders, they just aren’t feasible.

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This is a very different approach and I’m learning to love it; there is something so joyful and liberating about cramming bits and bobs into every available space with no colour themes or combinations in mind. It’s like the pebble Annie painted for us when she stayed here in July; there are no rules – simply choose whatever colours you like at the time and apply them in carefree, confident, happy strokes. Job done.

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The result is a scattered kaleidoscope of brights and pastels, of bold streaks and gentle spatters, a carnival of colour and shape jostling for room and attention. It’s not a show that would win any prizes but the very naughtiness of it makes my heart sing.

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I love the way this exuberance spills over into the veg patch, too; how could I improve on the Jerusalem artichokes’ very own splash of sunshine?

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So here we are at summer’s end and what the autumn brings only time will tell. Of one thing, though, I can be sure: next September when I’m scratching my head over a gardening itch, I will at least have a diary to refer to! 🙂

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Signing Off

I’ve decided to stop blogging so this will be my last post for the foreseeable future, perhaps ever. There are no bad or sad reasons for this. I haven’t fallen out with my love of writing, it’s just that after five and a half years I feel it’s time to take a break and do something different with my time. For instance, I’ve recently renewed my commitment to disciplined daily Spanish study; some of my learning resources are online and as I don’t like spending too long staring at a computer screen, once the Spanish is done I don’t feel like writing a blog post. Much as I love the buzz of writing, at this point I know in my heart of hearts it’s far more important to be working at improving my (still) very basic understanding of Spanish rather than messing about in fluent English!

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After two and a bit years we have finally reached the last phase of house renovation and with a big push now, it should be pretty much done and dusted by early autumn. Wow, what a project it has been, transforming what was basically a mountain hovel into a bright, clean, comfortable home. House done, we can turn our attention to the many, many outdoor projects we have in mind for the garden, meadows and woodland. That is going to be interesting, exciting and rewarding but will also take a lot of time and energy so other things will have to take a back seat.

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We’ll also have more time to get out and about which we are both really looking forward to. There is still so much to see and do locally, so many parts of beautiful Asturias left to explore . . . and then there’s the small matter of the entire Iberian peninsula. Well, it would be rude not to make the most of such a fantastic opportunity, wouldn’t it?

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We love to walk and the promise of more regular hiking already has me smiling. We want to put our bikes back on the road and do some cycling, sling our swimmers into a backpack and indulge in more wild swimming. Asturias is made for outdoor living and has so much to offer from surfing to ski-ing, riding to rock-climbing, camping to kayaking . . . who knows what new adventures await us?

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After almost a year out of action with a knee injury (ironically, not running related), Roger is now back to his old training ways and notching up 120km (75 miles) of running a week. He has started to enter races again and hopefully can look forward to some more Spanish podium moments in the coming months. After a rush of blood to the head, I’ve decided to start running again myself in a sort of masochistic ‘if you can’t beat them . . .’ way; I’ve even joined a running club for the first time in my life so that I can enter some races here. I will always be a plodding pony but that doesn’t matter; races need plodders as well as whippets and I know after training for a half-marathon last year that the benefits of regular running are huge. It’s something we can share (if not actually do together – Roger runs literally twice as fast as I do!) and we’re planning to travel more widely to events in the coming years. Reykjavik marathon (for the hare) and 10k (for the tortoise)? Well, why not?

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Of course, there are all the other things we love to do, too. I still have a huge box of fleece to spin and dye, a pile of colourful yarn to be knitted or crocheted into beautiful things, a stash of patchwork fabrics waiting for a project, not to mention several cross-stitch kits and a tapestry I still haven’t finished after fifteen years (ah well, no rush)! I have a guitar I don’t play anywhere near enough and Roger has his banjo to master and a motorbike to strip down. We have a huge pile of books brought home from our favourite charity bookshop in Ludlow – we are both avid readers – and a thousand and one recipes we still want to try. Then, naturally, there is the garden, our patch of flowers and food carved out of a steep mountainside that keeps us constantly busy and entertained.

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When I first started to write a blog on the now defunct ‘Vegblogs’ site, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing; I had no idea how to create a blog and only slightly more about how to operate a camera. I learned so many new skills and had such a lot of fun that I decided to carry on through various gardens and blogsites. It has been a real pleasure to write and share and a privilege to be part of a vibrant, creative community. I’ve learned much from other people and have made some lovely friends along the way. I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has taken the time and interest to read my posts on both current blogs, to everyone who has ‘followed’ me, to everyone who has been kind enough and interested enough to make comments either on the blogsites or in personal emails. Your support has been hugely appreciated and of course, I shall still dip in and out to see what other bloggers are up to, it’s such a lovely thing to do.

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So, time to say goodbye. Who knows, I might start to write again in the future, either picking up from where I’m leaving off or in another fashion altogether. The temptation, I feel, will always be there! For now, though, I have the rest of an adventure to enjoy and an exciting, happy and very full life to live. On which note – it’s time to put the keyboard away and GET OUT THERE! 🙂

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In praise of imperfection

Persuade thyself that imperfection and inconvenience are the natural lot of mortals, and there will be no room for discontent, neither for despair.‘  Ieyasu Tokugawa

I’ve seen several comments and articles recently about how the pressures of social media drive people to portray their lives as being far better than they really are, and that garden writing is no exception. Everything seems to look constantly rosy in other peoples’ patches and this can lead to feelings of inadequacy for lesser mortals who know their own garden would – given an honest assessment – be found wanting. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like taking photos of lovely things and sharing them as much as the next person. Take this rather beautiful sunflower, for instance. that has come into bloom this week.

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It would be tempting to wax lyrical about the flaming starburst of colour it has brought to the vegetable patch but the truth of the matter is, of the thirty seeds I planted in spring, this is one of only two – yes, two! –  plants that survived (the others having failed to germinate or been washed out of the ground in storms or munched off by the slimy ones). A beautiful flower? Certainly . . . but hardly a roaring success, is it?

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So, I’d like to put my hand up once and for all and admit that (a) our garden is a long, long way off being perfect and (b) I don’t care. I’m happy to share the disasters as well as delights, partly because I’m not by nature a dishonest or boastful person; I don’t feel a smug sense of superiority if I grow something ‘better’ than someone else but neither do I feel a crushing disappointment if they ‘outdo’ me. Mostly, though, it’s because gardening is a reflection of real life: there will always be ups and downs, successes and failures, feasts and famines. You can’t airbrush reality so why pretend in the garden? Here, then, is my unapologetic, warts ‘n’ all garden update. Of course, there are photos of good things but a few nasties, too.

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Having been away for ten days to celebrate Sam and Adrienne’s gorgeous wedding, we came home to what can only be described as a jungle. Unlike so many other parts of Europe, Asturias hasn’t had searing temperatures for several weeks and neither have we been short of water. Far from it, in fact; at times it has felt like the rain would never stop, and much in the garden has been crying out for sunshine. The two views above are typical of our year; the one below is a sunlit treat!

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The flip side, of course, is that it has stayed very lush and very green right to the mountain tops,  and stuff has grown like crazy, grass and weeds included – it took another ten days to get them back under control! Thankfully, several food crops emerged from under the weedy mess, including several patches of lettuce which just keep going and going.

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I went into into slight panic mode when we seemed to be down to a single courgette plant, and sowed some more; we now have seven (two of which are self-set) and more courgettes than we know what to do with.

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Ditto the cukes. What a nightmare time I had in spring getting these little blighters to grow; now, the smooth-as-silk ‘Diva’ and  knobbly ‘Marketmore 76’ are tumbling from their supports and doubling in size daily. I munch them as a piece of fruit as I work or wander round the garden but I’m losing the battle: cucumber and yogurt soup is definitely on the menu in the next few days.

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What can I say about the brassicas except that if I were the crying type, I’d be howling my head off in despair. The uphill struggle theses poor plants have had this year has been immense: slow germination or no germination (so re-sowing, in some cases several times); washed out of the ground in rainstorms; completely trashed by our own version of the Great Heathen Army, not Danes but slugs and snails in their thousands; picked on by whitefly, scratched up by blackbirds and  – the final insult to those brave survivors – torn to lace by caterpillars.

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Yes, it is very, very frustrating but I absolutely refuse to give up – I’m simply not prepared to see good food crops disappear literally before our eyes. I can think of better ways to spend my time than picking the caterpillars off each and every leaf several times a day and it beats me how they manage to reappear so darned quickly . . . but very slowly, I am clawing some ground back. Their numbers are dwindling and there is enough new growth on the plants to suggest we just might get some calabrese and kale after all. It’s interesting that the frilly purple kale which took the biggest slug and snail hit in spring (one plant left from six) is holding out better than the rest against caterpillars. There must be a lesson there somewhere. Maybe once Operation Caterpillar Clearout is over, I can work out what it is (or maybe just consider buying some anti-butterfly netting).

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The second veg garden perched above the orchard could easily be called the Three Sisters patch this year, being mainly planted with sweetcorn, squash and beans; whatever else happens here, we can be pretty certain that these three lovelies won’t let us down.

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Well, I say that,  but . . . the squash might be doing their thing, climbing fences, trailing into the lane and generally taking over the garden but of the six or seven new cultivars I planted this year, only ‘Olive’ has so far bothered to set any fruit. The others are simply faffing about. Take the self-set monster (front right) which has emerged from the compost heap and has probably grown from a ‘Guatemalan Blue’ seed from last year’s crop; it’s doing a splendid job in grabbing anyone who walks round the corner and is off at speed down towards the village but it’s yet to have a single flower. Aaaargh! At least our very favourite ‘Crown Prince’ is proving to be as reliable as ever so we won’t be totally squashless; unless those others get themselves sorted, I have a feeling it may well be ‘Crown Prince’ and only ‘Crown Prince’ next year.

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The French beans, I admit, are good. Very good, in fact. The ever-reliable ‘Tendergreen’ is cropping like mad and I have to say that ‘Purple Podded’ is giving it a close run for its money. We are picking and eating piles of both every day.

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I did have a bit of a moment when the climbing ‘Goldfield’ started to produce beans, thinking I’d had a rush of blood to the head and bought a runner by mistake. Not so, apparently. This is a flat-podded variety and where it’s not quite as prolific as its neighbours, the beans are crisp, tender and have a good flavour (ignore the holes in the leaves, it’s the story of our gardening year so far).

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Now for the polytunnel and where do I start but with a tale of woe – the complete and utter collapse of our magnificent tomato plants. It wasn’t unexpected; regular readers will know we have struggled with blight for three seasons now and this was our last-ditch attempt to grow a decent crop. Not a chance!

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Like the brassicas, it’s frustrating but not the end of the world. Flavoursome, sun-drenched tomatoes in every colour, shape and size are cheap and plentiful here so it’s easy enough to buy them and I can’t be bothered to feel upset or disappointed. The main annoyance was the fact that they had set such big tresses of fruit and it would have been lovely to see them ripen, especially those huge ‘Marmande’ beauties. No worries, we ate them green anyway; forget the ubiquitous chutney, green tomatoes sliced and lightly fried in olive oil with warming spices and finished with a dash of balsamic vinegar make a truly delightful dish.

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In no time at all, I had those miserable plants out and on a bonfire, using the freed-up space to pop in some extra pepper and chilli plants. They at least are doing the business and we’re happy to freeze any glut that  might (hopefully) present itself.

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On the subject of gluts, this time last year we were starting to enjoy a mammoth harvest of peaches: eaten fresh from the tree, made into marmalade and relish, frozen in massive quantities for stewing . . . we were in peach heaven. This year could not be more different. The early spring storms blasted the delicate pink blossom down the valley at 100kmh and consequently we have just a handful of fruit on a handful of trees. 😦 On the bright side, a break from bearing fruit does seem to be doing the trees good, they are looking much healthier this year and we won’t be short of fruit as the pears, figs and kiwi (inevitably!) are loaded. There are also a couple of little extra treats to look forward to.

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Things don’t look too bad in the nuttery, either. We’ve missed the boat where pickled walnuts are concerned but there’s a promise of a good crop of mature nuts to harvest and store once again (please note the blue sky).

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The hazels that Roger laid in early spring have made a wonderfully thick, verdant hedge along the lane and are shamelessly flaunting their frilly fruits. They look a little like Kentish cobs to me and will definitely be a treat if the wildlife doesn’t get there first.

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Things on the flower front have been tricky this year, too, and it’s hard to say how much the weather is to blame or if it’s just life happening. My attempt to brighten up the courtyard with lots of pots, troughs and hanging baskets has been met with mixed results; the petunias, pelargoniums, lobelia and friends have richoted between gaudy explosions of joyful colour and sad, soggy, slimy messes. It’s worked at times but in a half-hearted sort of way.

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The hardy annuals, too, have been a mixed bag of fortune. We have a smattering of sweet peas but they are truly the most pathetic I’ve grown for years; however, in fairness to them, they did at least germinate which is more than can be said for several packets of other things that chose not to bother. Calendula, borage, field poppies, Californian poppies and nasturtiums have all done their usual thing (thank goodness!) but for the others, it’s been a struggle. After a slow start, the pansies are making little pops of colour with their cheerful faces but something (what???) is nibbling the petals into rags. Perhaps nigella ‘Persian jewels’ wins the prize for enthusiasm and endurance this year.

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One thing we’ve found here is that generally speaking, anything grown from a bulb, corm, tuber or rhizome thrives. Certainly, the spring bulbs were a real show so on the strength of that I planted some new summer ones to add colour to the borders and veg patch alike. Mmm. The calochortus disappeared without trace. Of the fifteen gladiolus nanus ‘Charming Beauty’, only four grew and of those, only one has flowered. It is a pretty, dainty little butterfly of a thing but oh, so lonely!

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Crocosmia grows literally like a weed in the local verges and ditches so I’m not surprised that they have at least grown if not yet flowered like their wild cousins. Star award is definitely saved for the liatris spicata, though, whose gorgeous bottlebrush blooms are lighting up the lane and proving a magnet for bees and butterflies alike.

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Most of the dahlias I raised from seed last year made it through winter (no frosts to worry about) but several then rotted in the spring mudfest. A handful in the veg patch have also been hammered by the slimeballs; they’ve fought back but not found the strength to bloom yet. On the upside, the four I moved into the new border by the horreo are flowering and through luck rather than judgement, have all turned out to be different colours.

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So, there we have it. Our patch of earth is most definitely not a glitzy, manicured, flawless celeb of a garden. It wouldn’t win any prizes for anything. There is colour but not as much as I would like; there are vegetables, but we’re missing several bits and pieces; there’s wildlife, not all of it helpful. The bottom line, however, is that I wouldn’t change it for the world because it is how a garden should be; it’s not pretending to be anything other than how it is and I think that’s important. Yes, we are at the mercy of the vagaries of nature and the weather but wouldn’t it be so boring if it were all very predictable? To put it in context, we’ve had a pretty rubbish growing season but we still have more food than we know what to do with. It’s true that one of those carrots was forked, the pepper had fallen off the plant way before it had reached its optimum size and the pointed cabbage was blessed with the ‘offerings’ of caterpillars and slugs but everything in that trug was fresh and crisp and tender and flavoursome and wholesome in a way money can’t buy. Imperfect vegetables. Perfect! 🙂

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PS Don’t dwell on that kohl rabi – one of three plants left from a dozen, its foliage has been stripped and tattered and now something is nibbling its bottom. Rude!

 

 

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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