Home and away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Even the beehives were in keeping!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lessons in life (and lizards)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spring in the air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coming home to Paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tunnel vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Seed time and solstice

Things have been a bit on the seedy side here this week, if you pardon the expression. Seeing the spent morning glory vines dripping their seeds onto the ground below, I remembered that I had collected a tray of various seeds earlier in the autumn; surely by now they would be dried and ready to sort and bag up?

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I love collecting seeds, it is such a rewarding thing to do with that promise of good things to come again in the next growing season. With the colourful lure of glossy seed catalogues and online seed shops, it’s easy to forget that there is still very much a place for collecting our own seeds as well as buying new ones. For this reason, I really rate The Real Seed Catalogue and the philosophy of the people behind it: all their seeds are open-pollinated so can be collected to plant again; this might seem like a bit of a loss leader – a seed company that encourages customers to collect seeds rather than buy more?! – but I think it is brilliant and we have grown some interesting crops from their collection (I’m not being paid to say this, just speaking as I find).

The bigger the seeds, the easier they are to collect. The ‘Douce Provence’ peas I planted a couple of weeks ago were saved and dried from the last of this year’s harvest and in the same vein, we have a good bag of white Asturian beans to plant in the spring. No good trying to save seed from the ‘Crown Prince’ or butternut varieties of squash we grew this year as they are all F1 hybrids . . . but the ‘Guatemalan Blue’ is open-pollinated so we will definitely be saving some of their huge seeds. (By the way, we love this squash: it might be a bit of a thug but we had four enormous fruits from one plant and the flesh has a fantastic texture, colour and flavour). I don’t mind sorting out smaller seeds, too; it’s a bit of a fiddle, but well worth the effort. So, back to my tray of seeds and the first thing I realised is what a complete numpty I had been for leaving them in the barn under the house instead of making the effort to climb up to the horreo. Something – I strongly suspect of the small, furry rodentesque type – had scoffed every last one of my sunflower seeds and left just the husks! How rude. I do find this a bit ironic seeing as I left so many sunflower heads in the garden for the wildlife to enjoy but it’s my own silly fault. Luckily, the other seeds hadn’t proved attractive so I had a happy time organising them into seed bags ready for spring.

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Where flowers are concerned, I’m not sure I will need to buy any new seeds at all this year. I have always been happy to let things set themselves around the garden; it’s lazy gardening, I know, but why not? The Big Three – calendula, borage and nasturtiums – seem to go round in constant cycles here so we always have flowers, seedlings and seedheads at any one time. I love them all and would be perfectly happy if nothing else grew! This year, Californian poppies, phacelia and poached egg plant have joined the party and I suspect there will be poppies, cornflowers and sweet peas popping up all over the place, too. That suits me just fine.

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The arrival of our new polytunnel is fairly imminent so I decided it was time to dig the patch over again in readiness. Not wanting to waste such a good (and FLAT) area of garden this year, we planted sweet corn, Asturian beans and summer cabbages and calabrese and enjoyed hearty crops from them all. Latterly, it has been a riot of nasturtiums but unfortunately the couch grass had moved in, too, so time for some serious digging. The invernadero will make a huge difference to us in the garden; yes, we enjoy a wonderful growing climate here, but being able to extend the season (salad crops all winter, for example) and have a cosy shelter for young plants in early spring will be a massive boon.

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I dug over the whole area except for a patch of self-set mizuna; along with komatsuna and peas (also both self-set), it is providing us with some tasty, crisp salads at the moment so it can stay for the time being. It’s also a great example of how allowing seeds to do their own thing in the garden can be hugely beneficial.

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I have a lot of respect for the permaculture principle of paying attention to margins. We have always tried to use the margins of our garden in a way that is beneficial to the whole local environment: planting native hedges including fruit and nuts; planting swathes of native wildflowers; creating ponds and wetlands; making foraging areas for the hens, placing beehives or slipping in extra bits and pieces for the kitchen. As I dug this patch, it was clear that the strip along the lane side was in danger of becoming a useless and messy wasteland once the tunnel goes up: better to tackle that now! I started by digging out the ‘nuisance’ weeds – couch grass, creeping buttercup, dock and the like – but left the established daisies and red deadnettle, both still flowering. I then planted a clump of lemon balm at the barn end; this is a small root from the parent plant but will spread like stink, covering a rough area and binding the bank without causing any shade problems for the tunnel. At the gate end, I planted hyssop and verbena bonariensis, both grown from seed this year. In between, I relocated a couple of self-set hollyhocks and introduced a few calendula and borage seedlings, scattering seeds of the same, too (might as well cover all bases). There are already plenty of nasturtium seeds in there and the little stick of  spring-planted clematis ‘Polish Spirit’ has made a good start up the fence. Hopefully, this will now be an attractive area bustling with colour, life and edible things that will draw plenty of pollinators in to explore the delights of the polytunnel. Even better, it didn’t cost a penny.

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One of the most prolific self-setters we have here is mustard. Put it this way, we are in our second year here and have never planted it yet it comes up everywhere, even in cracks in the concrete. We’ve tried eating it and it’s truly horrid; no good as a veg crop, then, but I wasn’t too disheartened to see a mass of plants colonising the area where we grew potatoes this year. I’ve chopped them down this week and left them on the ground to wilt; next job will be to dig them in as a green manure. No waste here!

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Another thug – second only to the kiwi, believe me – is the comfrey. Remember that indifferent little root I planted a year ago? Oh my goodness, did it grow . . . and grow . . . and grow, which is all very well except it was encroaching on too many things around it, including the asparagus bed. I’ve been waiting patiently for it to die back before moving it but it has ignored my request and instead has started sending up new growth from the centre. Time to get tough. I cut back the older growth and added it to our newly-turned compost heap where it will be a great accelerator, requested Roger’s muscle and a fork to lift it (there is no way I could move the monster) and relocated it next to the pear trees. There it can romp away as much as it likes, bringing great pleasure to the bumble bee population and providing me with a regular source of fertiliser for other plants. With the comfrey gone, I cut back the asparagus stems and mulched the crowns, then cleared the rest of the ‘salad’ patch ready for spring planting (although a little patches of self-set komatsuna, leaf celery and borage remain).

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We have enjoyed some lovely photos this week of our little grandchildren having a wonderful time in the snow, and of course building some very impressive snowmen! No snow here, but we do have a couple of snowman-like features in the orchard . . .

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. . . our young lemon and orange trees, newly wrapped in fleece to protect them more from possible wind damage than anything else. They have grown so well this year after an initial bashing and there is a chance they might even fruit next season, so it’s worth keeping them snug.

Just four days until the Winter Solstice and as always we are planning a candlelit feast to celebrate. I know the coldest months are still to come but I always feel such a sense of immense joy at knowing that the days will soon grow longer and lighter, that spring and seed time will return, that there will be another season of warmth and growth and harvest. Like a handful of seeds, it is a wonderful, wonderful  promise that makes my heart sing, no matter how many times I experience it! 🙂

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November notes

The last day of November: how on earth did that happen? I know we have been busy and spent ten days away but somewhere I seem to have lost a couple of weeks along the way. Time, then, for the quickest of updates on life in our little corner of Asturias before the year tips into its final month.

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For much of November the weather has been warm, sunny and very dry; in fact, this time last week Roger was outside soaking up the sun in just his shorts. The last few days, however, have brought a distinct change as the wind has swung into the north and heralded the first frosts of the year and slightly whiter stuff on the peaks of the distant mountains. It fascinates me the way we can stand up here and watch the frost travel up the valley through the morning, before the sun melts it in moments. The good news is that with our new roof, chimney and stove we are as snug as extremely warm bugs in the house and a daily session with the chainsaw sees the log shed grow ever fuller – we’re getting through the huge pile of old roof timbers and there will be something quite satisfying about ‘recycling’ them into warmth.

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With Sam and Adrienne flying in tomorrow for a few days here, Roger has been going flat out to get the stairs made. As carpentry is absolutely not his favourite thing and there was nothing I could do to help (except supply mugs of coffee and sympathy  now and then), I have been spending my days outside. I’ve never been one for a big ‘autumn tidy’ for several reasons (I like to leave stems for wildlife shelter and a bit of structure over winter, apart from anything else) but a few areas of the veg patch have needed a bit of attention if they are to do the business again next year. After a couple of seasons of cultivation and feeding, the soil is wonderful – rich, deep and loamy and a joy to turn over. After much hard work, we had reached exactly the same stage in our last two gardens at which point we moved house and country (Roger points out we always do that when the log store is full, too) . . . it’s a lovely, reassuring feeling that this time will be different!

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The soil lightly forked and raked, I planted a couple of long rows of early peas and broad beans for a spring harvest; these grew so well last year that it makes sense to grow a few more. I love this time of year when traditionally we look back over the year and decide what was successful, what not so good and make our plans for the new season. Florence fennel will definitely be on the list again, it is still flourishing and truly delicious in so many dishes; komatsuna, golden pak choi and spinach are providing a reliable crop of mixed greens – the secret here is to plant them very late (as in late October).

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Something I have really struggled with this year is kale: last year, I couldn’t stop it growing, this year has been an uphill battle and one I truly thought I’d lost. I know that’s how gardening goes, it’s all part of the ‘fun’ but a bit disappointing if we are left without what is usually a pretty reliable vegetable. I love kale: it seems to ooze good health and nourishment in the darkest, meanest months and it’s such a versatile veg, too. We eat a lot of it braised in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, but it’s great fried like crispy seaweed or shredded and stirred through a risotto or pasta dish, too. What I don’t understand is the trend of piling it into a posh blender with blueberries and pulverising it to a gelatinous pulp; call me a dinosaur, but I’d rather chew on my veg than drink them any day. Aaaaaanyway . . . this is how the sad story of our kale has gone. First sowing (in seed trays way back in the summer) – nothing germinated at all; second sowing (in seed trays, fresh compost, later in the summer) – only one variety germinated very sparsely, then most of the seedlings died. The valiant few then sat in their tray doing nothing for several weeks, despite much encouragement from the gardener; eventually (heading rapidly into autumn), said gardener became fed up at looking at the miserable little things and planted them (all six) in the ground; cue every bug and beastie from miles around deciding that tiny kale seedlings were their very, very favourite food and despite the gardener’s very best efforts (honestly, short of putting up a tent and sleeping with them, I couldn’t have done more to protect them), only three remained. Having reached the ‘Okay, I give up . .  . we didn’t want kale anyway’ stage a couple of weeks ago, how very happy was I to find this on our return home last week . . .

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. . . yay!!!! 🙂

Something we don’t have any problem growing here is leeks and once again we are luxuriating in a tremendous crop of monstrous beauties. They are a mix of ‘Musselburgh’ and ‘Blue Solaise’, both giving the other a good run for their money in the Best Leek in Patch award. Some are a spot of rust, others are a tad slimy on the outer leaves but overall they are fantastic and pretty much appearing daily on the menu. This little haul was heading for the soup pot . . .

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Talking of soup, our other very favourite ingredient is squash – roasted in spices then combined with leeks, borlotti beans and chillies (both from the freezer) in a homemade stock, they produce a soup to die for and one that we are very happy to eat for lunch or dinner, especially with walnut bread and melting cheese. There is something so very satisfying about eating a meal almost completely made from homegrown ingredients. The squash enjoyed their few weeks of sunbathing on the horreo and emerged with wonderfully cured skins, so we have moved them inside now, tucked up on crumpled newspaper to keep them aired and hopefully prevent any rotting over winter. We decided the time had come to tackle one of the giant Guatemalan Blues to join the leeks in the soup mix and I can confidently report that it is a terrific variety with lovely firm, orange flesh and truly, truly tasty.

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Keeping the squash company in the horreo is the first picking of kiwis – yes, it’s that time of year again already. Unbelievably, we seem to have an even bigger crop than last year and some of the fruits are huge. I’ve picked as many as I can reach, but most of them are high up on the pergola so I need to wait until Chief Carpenter can help as I’m not a fan of wobbling around on ladders. Still, I’ve made a good start with nearly 200 picked – just several hundreds more to go!

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At the end of the squash sunbathing balcony is an area where we put walnuts to dry after harvesting and then overwinter; it’s a bit of a wriggle getting to them, but the system works perfectly. Shimmying up there this week, I was, however, reminded of just how big a project we have taken on here and how much we still have to do. There should be an unfettered view up the meadow to the woods where the chestnut leaves are a blaze of gold against dark, glossy holly and silvery-blue eucalyptus but instead there is this . . .

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When we were told by the previous owner that it was to stop birds from stealing nuts, my imagination went into overdrive wondering what on earth could be such a threat. A squadron of vegetarian griffon vultures  swooping down like something from The Dam Busters? Giant killer ostriches with a nut fetish (and very lost, obviously)? Or maybe wild boar with strap-on wings doing a Daedalus and Icarus number? Roger has started to remove the layer upon layer of welding mesh, chicken wire and plastic netting but it is a painstaking job given how everything is twisted together with miles and miles of rusty barbed wire; the irony is that the area is now completely open to avian terrorist attack at one end and the only thing helping themselves to the nuts is . . . us.

Good nuts they are, too, and we use them often in the kitchen (in fact, Roger is sprinkling some over the top of a pear streusel cake as I speak). I have put them in our mincemeat this week and they are also playing a starring role in the granola I’ve made for the weekend – I love having visitors, it’s a great excuse for cooking.

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Now for the final piece of news and I think this ta -dah! moment requires an imaginary drumroll because . . .wait for it, folks . . . yes, we have STAIRS! Hurrah for the cake-baking carpenter! I know they aren’t exactly finished yet as in there are no spindles or handrails and they need painting (as does the stairwell) but now we no longer have to climb up and down a ladder and for the very first time we can have visitors to stay without us having to camp out on the kitchen floor. Oh, happy, happy days!

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Now if you will excuse me, I’m off to make a batch of mince pies in order to celebrate. 🙂

 

 

 

Autumn gold

October has been a truly golden month here, with bright blue skies, hot sunshine and deliciously soft, warm air. Even the roses are having another flush, their third this year.

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The meadows are still lush with grass and filled with the gentle lilac haze of autumn crocus, such fragile and beautiful things with their sunny saffron centres.

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It has been a joy to be outside in the fresh air and I’ve had a happy time of it pottering about the patch and doing a bit more end of season tidying. The compost heap and bonfire have both grown steadily as spaces open up and we start to plan the planting scheme for next year.

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Having reached this stage of the year we are happy that we have more than enough planting space which is a relief as the idea of carving out more from the mountainside doesn’t fill me with a lot of pleasure! I’ve loved the flowers mingling in the veg patch and crowding each other along the fence, definitely one to do again next year. I’ve been collecting seeds as I go but I’ve left most of the sunflower heads for the birds to clear up.

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It’s lovely to watch the flocks of various finches arrive every evening to feed although frustratingly they have so far evaded my attempts to capture them with the camera. No worries, they are certainly doing a great job.

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Despite the summery weather, there has been a subtle shift in what’s on offer from the garden this week. We ate the last aubergine, and we are down to just a handful of peppers. Lovely to see them ripening, though, and a mixed dish ‘padron’ style was a delicious (and rightly warming) tapas dish earlier in the week.

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We had the first savoy cabbage of the year, only a small patch of these to come but they always do us more than one meal so that’s no problem.

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Likewise, the parsnips: I’m not sure why I worry about how small the row is, when they’re all this big we really don’t need too many!

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No shortage of chard either, this kept growing all last winter. I just love the way the sunlight illuminates those gorgeous stalks.

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Away from the garden and the renovation work has been coming on apace once again. Much of our life is spent overcoming problems (it’s good for the old grey matter) and this week was no exception: how to transport sheets of plasterboard safely and without damaging them. After a busy time in his Man Shed, Roger came up with the perfect solution, a customised plasterboard carrier fashioned from old doors strapped to the trailer.

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Sadly, he’s yet to find an easy way of carrying them up fourteen steps then lifting them into the attic on ladders. At 26 kilos each, we felt we’d had quite a workout by the time we’d shifted fifteen of them!

On the upside of Plasterboard World, we decided to combine our DIY shopping trip with some time off to enjoy and explore several beaches en route. Well, why not, given the gorgeous weather? It was such a perfect day, the sea a deep blue but rolling and boiling with those classic Asturian waves that the surfers love so much and were certainly enjoying. In fact, there were several people swimming too, and we wished we’d thought to throw our swimmers and towels in. Never mind, it was lovely just to walk along the beaches, watching the white water throwing up rainbows and luxuriating in the wrap-around warmth. So very beautiful. What a stunning place this is.

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We weren’t the only ones enjoying it, either!

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Hard to believe it’s nearly November . . .  🙂

 

 

 

Contrasts

What a week of interesting contrasts! Weatherwise, it has been summer all over again. The mornings have started misty and moisty, the valley stuffed with candyfloss cloud.

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Bright blue skies and unbroken sunshine have followed . . .

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. . .  and then some truly stunning sunsets.

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Of course, we have felt it our duty to get out and enjoy the lovely weather so we happily awarded ourselves a few breaks from house renovation, packed a picnic and sallied forth into the sunshine.

Our first walk was along the Ruta Hoces del Esva; we did a circular walk there with Sam and Adrienne last year but this time opted for a 5 mile / 8k out and back trek, following the path until it swung away from the beautiful  Esva river. It’s a fascinating walk and quite a good physical workout, too, starting high above the river, then dipping up and down the gorge several times. There are boardwalks in places, and a few rocky scrambles, as well as flatter paths at river level. We’d hoped to catch a glimpse of the otters that live there: no luck, but the dippers put on quite a show for us instead. It is such a truly beautiful place, so peaceful and tranquil (we didn’t see another soul), and we sat under the trees eating our picnic and listening to the birdsong and chatter of the river.

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In contrast, admitting that we really had to face a supermarket this week, we did our favourite trick of turning the day into a coastal walk and picnic with a bit of shopping on the side. I’m beginning to think it’s always cloudy in Galicia, or maybe just the days we choose to visit? No matter, it was blissfully warm and it was a joy to eat lunch watching the waves crashing against the spectacular rock formations.

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I love that fresh ozone seaside smell, there is something so invigorating about it . . . and somehow the choice for dinner that night was an obvious one!

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All change again, and this time a 8mile / 11.5k hike through Somiedo Natural Park. It was hard to believe that last time I walked there it was through snow! It is such a wild and stunningly beautiful place with incredible views in every direction – not surprising, really, considering we were at a height of 1750 metres.

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Roger knew just the place for our lunch stop, a rocky outcrop with unbelievable views of the valley below (the one we walked in snow, in fact). Sitting in the hot sunshine, tucking into homemade peach and blueberry streusel cake and drinking in the view and mountain air, it felt so good to be alive. We stayed for much longer than any lunch break ought to be!

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Warm, sun-drenched evenings have meant plenty of outdoor cooking over wood. What a great excuse to tuck into more of our sweetcorn; if you’ve never eaten it this way, I urge you to try – believe me, it is a world away from any that has been boiled in water or tipped out of a can.

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It makes a delicious and substantial starter, so we’ve been following it with small main courses based on crisp salads from the garden. Florence fennel, pear, baby carrot and spinach dressed in olive oil and lemon juice then topped with fennel fronds, marigold petals and walnuts has tasted so fresh and seasonal; other versions have involved golden pak choi, green peppers and sweet young peas (remember those little self-set plants I rescued a few weeks ago?).

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We have harvested the last of the walnuts but that’s no problem;  the chestnut season has well and truly begun and everyone is out gathering.

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We have been peeling them for the freezer and throwing them into trays of roast veg (scrummy!) but decided to have a go at something a bit different and made this  chestnut and mushroom pie . Oh my word, talk about autumn comfort food! It was utterly delicious and very filling, a thing of complete gorgeousness. There was ample for three meals so the rest has gone into the freezer for those days when the weather is more suggestive of the need to eat pie

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Back to the renovation (it’s not all play here). Despite our wanderings, this week has marked quite a turning point in house renovation world. There are still a lot of fiddly finishing bits and pieces to be done (not to mention stairs, bathroom and an attic bedroom) but suddenly we appear to have a living space that is clean, bright and comfortable . . . and the sofa is back, hurray! I’m not sure how we will cope without the nailed-down brown lino and weeping damp walls but we’ll give it our best shot. Bit of a contrast in the before and after shots, don’t you think?

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Finally, my new personal challenge. After 15 months of setting myself physical challenges  – Walk 500 Miles in five months, then the half marathon – I’ve decided to opt for a contrast this time and set a challenge based on writing. I’ve started a second blog in response to people asking us why and  – more to the point – how we are living as we do and what it takes to lead a simpler life. It will be a different approach to writing in some ways and I’m very excited about it. I’d be delighted for you to have a look, please feel free to visit and comment whenever you want.  This Simple Life  Of course, I will carry on with the same old nonsense on this blog, too! For the time being, however, the temperature has hit thirty-one degrees outside so it’s time to go and luxuriate in that lovely warmth. Hasta luego. 🙂