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. 🙂

 

 

 

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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. 🙂

 

October ramblings

There have been several comments this week from family and friends in Britain that it is ‘feeling autumnal’ and thoughts are turning to putting the heating on and reaching for comfort food recipes. It’s certainly looking like autumn in places here, too. There is a subtle turning of the leaves, a haze of yellows, oranges and browns drifting through the deciduous woods in the same way the soft green fuzz of new growth does in spring.

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A huge benefit for us, though, is that light levels may be falling along with the leaves but the temperature stays up. We are still enjoying temperatures in the twenties during the day and mid- teens at night; our windows are open day and night and when (from necessity in the face of a broken electric oven) we lit the Beast, we ended up cooking ourselves as well as dinner! There is a simple equation that, even after living here for 16 months, I still find hard to grasp: cloud plus gloom plus rain does not mean cold weather. It might be damp and grey but it’s still warm enough for shorts and living outside. It’s one of the (many) things I love about Asturias.

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No excuse, then, for not heading out for some walks to see what nature is up to. Ah, yes more evidence of autumn . . . and several not-so-subtle reminders of how dangerous it is to walk under the chestnut trees at this time of year. Ouch!

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In contrast to the woodlands, the roadside verges are still blooming with a mass of colourful flowers: heather, gorse, knapweed, hypericum, wild carrot, scabious, red clover . . . all pretty as a picture and buzzing with insects.

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PICT0821Plenty of colour in the garden, too. Now I know that I have already included several photos of the morning glory in previous posts but I just can’t help adding a few more as I am SOOOOOO delighted with them. I have tried for years to grow them with only partial success and much frustration; it seems I just needed to be in the right place because a few seeds casually thrown in very late have turned into plants of great enthusiasm and beauty. They are making a grand job of covering the veg patch fence, scrambling through old sweet pea tripods and wrapping themselves round sunflower stalks as they go. What has really thrilled me is that this week the very deep indigo colour so typical of wild plants here as appeared. Stunning.

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Also beautiful are the dahlias grown from seed. They have certainly been one of the big success stories of the year and seem to go on and on. I was tempted to pick a bunch for the house but practically every one was housing a foraging bee of some kind so I decided to leave them where they can be enjoyed by all. Couldn’t resist a snap of this gorgeous claret number, though. Hide my wool, please – I’m itching to make something this colour!

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I’m not a huge fan of hydrangeas but they are very typical of Asturias and ours are flowering extremely late, possibly as a result of the rather savage pruning I gave them in the spring. I wish we had the deep magenta and purple varieties, those I will admit to liking. Ours are all white and pale blue, a bit insipid to my mind, but that said, on close inspection they do have a rather delicate beauty.

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Going back to the subject of bees for a moment: having spent several weeks feasting on rotten peaches, the honey bees have now turned their attention to fallen figs. I still find this behaviour fascinating and love to watch them tucking in.

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At the food end of things, a mild autumn means we can carry on happily growing crops outside without any danger of frost. Things are slowing down a bit of course, but we are still picking peppers, aubergines and courgettes – the latter having now left the garden and started off down the lane.

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There are plenty of ‘new’ foods, too. Earthed up, the Florence fennel is fattening into some lovely plump bulbs.

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The canellini beans, specially bred for a very late harvest, are doing what all beans seem to do here naturally – growing like stink.

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As well as komatsuna and golden pak choi, we have a good crop of spinach; forget lettuce, these are our multi-purpose salad-cum-cooking leaves of the moment.

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We haven’t grown sweet corn for years, and even when we did it was always a touch and go crop in the polytunnel. My oh my, are we enjoying this harvest! The secret is to get the cobs from plant to plate in a matter of minutes while the sugar content is high. Flame-grilled or barbecued over wood is our favourite cooking method – a great tip we picked up from street vendors when we lived in Cyprus – then smeared in butter and eaten in fingers straight from the cob. The contrasting sweet and salty flavours are sublime: think sea salt and caramel, bacon and maple syrup . . . surely such simple, priceless pleasure is why growing vegetables is such an amazing thing to do! 🙂

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Squashed!

I love this time of year. For reasons I’ve never quite pinned down, I always have a tremendous burst of creative energy in early autumn which normally finds me dashing about planning all sorts of new activities: decorating, gardening, woolly things . . . you name it, I have a new project in the pipeline. I’m not sure why this happens. Maybe it’s a natural extension of our busy squirrel behaviour at this time of year, harvesting and storing food for the future, or perhaps just a change in light levels that triggers something deep within me. I feel a heightened awareness of colours and textures around me that just makes me itch to do something, make something.  Anyway, this year I am trying very hard to keep a lid on it; I have so many things on the go at the moment, I really, really don’t need anything else to do (tempted though I am to dig my spinning wheel out of storage and indulge myself with the lovely feel of fleece flowing through my fingers . . . no, no, no!). That said, I can still enjoy the inspirational sights that have appealed to my senses this week, whilst sitting firmly on my hands!

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Our last tripod of Asturian beans was ready for harvesting this week, yielding quite a pile for the freezer.

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With the beans gone and summer cabbage long over, I started to clear the site for our planned polytunnel. Considering this was such a rough and stony patch, the soil is deep and rich after cultivation. I can’t clear the whole lot yet as the sweetcorn is still going strong. I love the way those sunny nasturtiums have self-set themselves and are rambling quite happily below the corn. They – like morning glory – literally grow like weeds here, and I’m thrilled to see little plants popping up in the most unexpected places; we also have two lots in a year, one in May and one now. Suits me fine!

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Something else having a second go are the figs. The local bird population is giving them a lot of attention (I can’t blame them really) but there is a big enough crop to go round. We are experimenting with a few different fig recipes but quite honestly I think they are at their best eaten sun-warmed straight from the tree. I am certainly enjoying them for breakfast with Greek yogurt, a sprinkling of our walnuts and a drizzle of village honey. The latter is pure indulgent decadence on my part: the figs are oozing with sweetness (and I don’t have a sweet tooth at the best of times) but there is something so good about that raw honey flavour. Mmm!

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I admitted several weeks ago that as far as the squash patch was concerned, I had lost complete control. A few days ago, one of the Crown Prince decided to harvest itself and break free; Roger found it halfway down the bank below and rescued it, along with a Guatemalan Blue which was causing a bit of a stir in the lane.

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Now this is a bit of a problem with our garden: heavy squash under the influence of gravity on a steep mountainside in danger of taking out several of Antonio’s sheep as they bowl down towards the village. In the name of maintaining good neighbourly relations, we decided the time for the Great Squash Harvest had come. Roger waded manfully into the jungle (definitely a wellies and knife job) and passed the squash over the fence while I hauled them away in the wheelbarrow.

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By my own admission, even I am asking just how much squash two people can eat . . . and this was supposed to be a scaled-down -I’m-only-planting-a-sensible-amount year. To date: 4 Guatemalan Blue, 9 Crown Prince, 9 golden butternuts (Harrier and Hunter) and 14 ‘Barbara’ butternuts, not to mention the few we’ve already eaten and the pile still to be harvested (yes, they are still growing). I spent a happy but energetic hour wiping them off and carrying them up to the horreo where they are now basking on the sunlit balcony like a bunch of bronzing beauties.

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So . . . next year, as well as keeping a grip on my creative projects, I think I better have a more sensible squash planting moment, too! 🙂

 

A sense of balance

I always think of the equinoxes as perfect points of balance, a few moments of equilibrium between dark and light before we tip into longer or shorter days. Looking around the garden, fields and woodland this week there is certainly a sense of balance in all things, as though we have one foot planted firmly in both seasons.

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The swallows and their friends are still piercing the evening skies with their arrowhead silhouettes but the garden resounds with the robins’ autumn song once more. We are still enjoying sitting out and eating on warm, sunny evenings but the mornings creep in a little cooler, a little mistier, a little later.

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The fields around us are still lush and green . . .

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. . . but the woodland whispers of a subtle shift in seasons.

There are plenty of sights that still sing of summer . . .

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Young carrots, Florence fennel and French beans: could this be June?

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Our third crop of dwarf beans this year.

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. . . and those that hint at the changes to come.

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In terms of what we are eating from the garden, a game of blindfold ‘guess the season’ would be interesting at the moment. A salad from the last outdoor tomatoes, a young cucumber, several types of sweet pepper, a yellow courgette, young Florence fennel, mint and chives was a crisp and colourful palette of summery flavours. A tray of roast vegetables – more courgettes and peppers, onion, garlic, aubergines – felt summery in a ratatouille sort of way until the starchier heavyweights of potato and butternut squash made their presence felt. Spiced red cabbage braised with pear and toasted walnuts and a dish of buttered leeks . . . ah, now that definitely suggests autumn is in the air. What a wonderful, delicious time of year it is!

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Season’s eatings.

It’s a busy time of harvesting. We have spent several hours picking and podding kilos of beans for the freezer. These will be one of our main staples in the months to come; they are such a versatile and nutritious food, whether cooked and cooled for salad bases, thrown into soups and stews or made into hummus-style dips. We love fabada, the regional pork, chorizo and bean stew, and it’s comforting to think that this winter’s version will be all the more authentic for having grown our own crop of creamy white Asturian fabas.

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Bean counter: French dwarf, borlotti and Asturian.

The first walnuts are falling and it’s a case of beating the wild boar to them, not easy when our main stand of trees is across the meadow and out of sight. They have certainly been partying like pigs if the rootlings and snoutings under the trees are anything to go by but we don’t begrudge them their nightly feasts, there is plenty for all!

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We have  a tremendous crop of pears this year, the branches are drooping under the sheer weight of fruit. Research tells us the best way to keep them is in a very cold fridge and as we just happen to have a spare one of those under the house (one of the more useful things we were left here) we have been filling it steadily over the last few days. Having tried and failed to grow decent pears in the past, these are such a treat and will be our main hard fruit over winter.

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Mind you, we are still enjoying a good crop of summer fruits and of course, the mighty kiwi harvest is waiting in the wings.

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Something else which has been waiting in the wings is our new stove, aka Beast III. It has been installed for several weeks now, sitting proudly beneath its new state of the art slate-clad chimney (a final little creative flourish from our builder!) but we still need to finish decorating around it and obviously it has been far too warm to even think about lighting it. Cue one blown element in our electric oven this week and suddenly the Beast has taken centre stage, warm weather or not. Oh my goodness, what a difference to the old stove and chimney set up we have been struggling with. Here’s a novelty: all the smoke goes up the chimney, all the heat comes out into the room, it is hot enough to cook on within minutes of lighting and maintains a steady heat. Gentle enough to simmer a rich slow-cooked sauce, hot enough to bake bread and crisp homemade pizzas, constant enough to keep the kettle singing merrily. I’m singing, too; I don’t want to rush towards cooler weather but we are going to be so snug this winter, it makes me smile just to think about it. 🙂

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Returning to the theme of balance. One of the things I love about travel and living abroad is the opportunity they offer for cultural exchange, opening eyes and minds to new possibilities and broadening horizons. It fascinates me how similar human beings from different parts of the world can be whilst at the same time, even the tiniest cultural differences can define us in interesting ways. Seeing and experiencing the ways in which different nations live and work helps to put everything into perspective, to maintain a balanced view of my native country and others I have spent time in. I have never understood the view that just because someone does something in a different and unfamiliar way, it’s wrong. No, it’s simply different . . . and maybe we should try it ourselves? On our long car journeys of recent months, Roger and I have often joked that if you could take the silky smooth surface and camber of a French road, add the super-visible road markings and signage of a British road and the courtesy and patience of Spanish drivers, you would have the perfect car journey!

So where is this going? Well, one of the things I have noticed since moving to Asturias is the distinct lack of litter compared to the other countries in which I have lived; yes, there is some in places but on the whole, people here work very hard to keep their beautiful principality clean. Rubbish bins and recycling points are plentiful in public places and are used and emptied regularly, even in more remote areas; popular beaches are litter-picked and raked daily; you simply don’t see people throwing litter down on the street or out of their cars and that’s what makes the difference. There is a deep pride and respect for the environment that I feel is sadly lacking in other places. Stopping for a picnic lunch near Bordeaux last week, I couldn’t help but take a photo of a bag of rubbish that had been dumped on the grass in a litter-strewn picnic site. The site had an empty, lined rubbish bin that no-one seemed capable of using. The irony of the message on the bag can’t be missed. What a strange species we are.

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Over the finish line

‘A comfort zone is the most dangerous area anyone can stay in. It is a place of no growth and no challenges.’ Brian Cagney

The older I get, the more I agree with the quotation above. Turning fifty last December gave me the opportunity to ponder the dangers of slipping into a comfortable middle-aged stagnation, just allowing life to pass me by in a predictable march of time. Life is such a precious gift and I am determined to live it as fully as I possibly can. So, during a sunny birthday walk along our local coast path, my plan was hatched: time to run a half marathon and raise money for a charity very close to my heart.

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Older but possibly not wiser . . . time for a challenge!

When choosing which half marathon to enter, Lake Vyrnwy was the obvious choice for several reasons. First, apart from the first mile and last short stretch, it is almost completely flat or downhill (sometimes I’m not quite as daft as I look!). Second, we lived locally for many years so it’s familiar territory and a much-loved spot; we have spent many happy hours walking, cycling, having picnics and even wild swimming in a deep pool at the top of a waterfall there. So many happy memories! Third, it would be a beautiful place for my support team to pass a few hours and if all else failed, I knew I would at the very least have a long walk in stunning scenery.

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Ironically, it all looked rather more stunning than I’d expected at this time of year. The water thundering over the dam wall is a tremendous sight but can only mean one thing. Water. Lots of it, pouring out of the sky and filling the lake to overflowing. Good job I’d had my Drowned Rat training run at home in Asturias because the land of soggy trainers was beckoning once again. Well, I’d wanted a challenge . . .

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Trying to keep dry and not look too nervous before the race . . . and failing miserably on both counts.

The race was pretty much everything I’d expected it to be: pre-race nerves jangling and a long queue for the portaloos – I don’t want to do this; a slightly claustrophobic feeling in the starting crowd – I really don’t want to do this; very soggy running shoes within minutes, thanks to the sheer amount of surface water on the road – yuk; hitting a bit of a ‘wall’ between nine and ten miles and feeling some serious self-doubt creeping in – count to eight over and over, sing ‘King and Lionheart’, picture Lewis’s sunny smile, tell yourself you can do this, come on, come on, come on; losing all sense of what my body was doing at 12 miles – just put one foot in front of the other . . .  and repeat, don’t think – just move; an enormous sense of relief as the finish line came into sight – I’ve done it! and an overwhelming sense of joy at the sight of family and friends (and a completely delicious chunk of chocolate brownie!) – I am very blessed to be so loved (and so well-fed!).

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And we’re off: just 13.1 miles to go.

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The finish line: made it!

Soaked to the skin, cold, aching from head to toe, tired and very footsore . . . not a comfort zone in sight. It felt fantastic. Truly fantastic.

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Piece of cake!

Back in a noticeably less soggy Spain and reflecting on this personal challenge from start to finish, what do I feel? The overwhelming initial feeling has been one of gratitude to all those wonderful people who have supported me with their unstinting encouragement during training and braving the awful weather to be there on the day. I am indebted to everyone who has sponsored me so generously with their donations: the amount raised for Rachel House Hospice currently stands at £752.50, 150% of my initial target and more than I ever imagined possible. Thank you!

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My coach!

I feel a deep sense of achievement but not in a boastful or big-headed way, more a feeling of fulfilment and contentment and self-belief. If I can run a half marathon, anyone can – please be inspired! If I can run a half marathon, what else can I do if I try? What has surprised me during the last week more than anything is an incredible feeling of balance and calm, as though the hard physical and mental challenges of the past months have picked me up, shaken me out and set me down on firmer ground. It’s hard to express adequately in words but I feel stronger and tougher yet more relaxed and pragmatic. This shift has already changed my outlook. I’ve always been a nervous flyer and was secretly dreading our return journey  – the first time I have flown for seven years – until I stopped and asked myself why I was nervous. If I can run a half marathon, surely I could cope with a 90-minute flight? Yes, of course I could . . . and I did. I’d even go so far as to say I enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to next time! Perhaps I’ve grown up at last? What a great gift!

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Running in memory of Lewis has changed me for the better!

So what next? I will certainly carry on running a couple of times a week as the benefits can’t be denied, but I don’t plan to run another half marathon, just enjoy it as recreational exercise. For now, I’m planning to catch up on things I’ve been neglecting during training – gardening, walking, yoga, Spanish study – to name but a few. However, part of me suspects when early December comes round once again, there will be another whiff of madness in the air and new challenges taking shape. Well, I don’t want to let myself get too comfortable now, do I? 🙂

Harvests and handbags

Our trip to the UK is almost upon us, how the time has flown by these last weeks. It seems ironic that after waiting so long for the new roof to be done, we now have to tear ourselves away from the renovation work but such is life: it will still be here when we return!

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There always seems to be so much to do before we go away, much of it outside and relatively last minute. We leave jobs like strimming and weeding as late as we can to give the garden the best chance of not being too overgrown when we get back. However, harvesting what we can before we leave has been top of the list for several days now.

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I love the way we move through different phases of the peach season here and it’s interesting how they are so much earlier this year than last. We have frozen many kilos of the fat and juicy yellow peaches (now over), and turned plenty more into preserves. We are not great jam eaters but a simple peach jam made with a good dollop of lemon juice makes an excellent alternative to marmalade. This peach relish Peach and chilli chutney is far and away the best chutney we have ever tasted. The white peaches now coming thick and fast are smaller, firmer and less furry (a bit like apricots) than the yellows so I have been freezing them in their skins. They have the prettiest rose blush inside.

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We also have green peaches which look under-ripe but are delicious and there will be apricots ready on our return. It’s a shame they don’t travel well (we tried to transport them last year with little success) but we will certainly be taking plenty of pears with us.

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Peach jam, peach and chilli relish and Jairo’s honey

Jairo brought us a jar of the most delicious honey fresh from his hives, something I absolutely love drizzled over my breakfast toast or oats and yogurt. His bees have had a good year but are currently under siege from Asian hornets who lurk around the hive entrance ready to pick off the unsuspecting inhabitants; in Jairo’s words, they are literally too scared to come out. Poor things. Almost every house in the village has a few hives and it is certainly partly thanks to the foraging workers that our fruit blossom has once again been so well pollinated. What I have found fascinating this week is that those honey bees who are managing to run the gauntlet of the hornets are feeding greedily on the rotten peaches around the garden. I’ve never seen honey bees do such a thing. Amazing.

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I apologise if I sound like a bean bore in these posts but goodness me, do we have a bountiful crop again this year. As we are freezing them there is no need to let them dry out, it’s simply a case of timing the harvest just right so that they have matured. This was the haul from the tripod of climbing borlotti beans with a few ‘Czar’ runner beans thrown in for good measure.

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I must admit, I’m not sure about those runners. To be fair, there are still a few more pods to come and the beans are everything they were said to be in terms of big and buttery; however, in comparison to the climbing borlotti and certainly the Asturian beans still to come, the yield is very disappointing. I’m not sure I’ll bother again.

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It’s interesting, too, how much more prolific the bush borlotti beans are than the climbers – the latest row yielded over six times the amount of beans (nope, we won’t be short!). Next year I think we will need to look carefully at just what is worth growing up poles and perhaps changing our planting ideas a little.

Something else we will not be short of are squashes: at the last count, there are at least three ‘Guatemalan Blue’, eight ‘Crown Prince’, almost twenty yellow butternuts (either ‘Hunter’ or ‘Harrier’ or maybe even both) and too many of the green and soon-to-be orange striped ‘Barbara’ to count. No problem with having our first taste of the yellows this week, then!

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Butternut ‘Barbara’ takes the prize for being the most prolific variety: the fruits are everywhere!

Another of our autumn and winter staples is leeks. These are without doubt one of my all time favourite vegetables and like the beans and squashes, they seem to thrive in the conditions here. We have grown the ever-reliable ‘Musselburgh’ with a few ‘Blue Solaise’ thrown in, and –  even though it seems so early – with over 200 plants galloping away, we couldn’t resist the first picking of those this week, too.

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Of course, in the garden it’s not all about what’s ready to eat – there is always one eye on what’s still to come. I love self-set seeds, I always think they deserve the best of chances and tend to thrive where they have chosen to grow. It’s lovely to see little plants popping up all over the garden at the moment: coriander, chervil, parsley, French marigolds, nasturtiums, borage, beans (as if we need those!), Californian poppies, calendula and quite a crop of little pea seedlings. I thought it was worth giving the latter a go so I carefully lifted them into a couple of rows and pushed in hazel stick supports. We might not get too many peas or else they could well run to mildew but at the very least we can eat the shoots in salads.

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The sprinkling of komatsuna, golden pak choi and spinach that I planted last week were through the ground in no time and the earlier sowings of ‘Autumn King’ carrots and Florence fennel are looking grand. Mmm, good food to come.

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This trip is a little unusual in that we are only driving one way; we are taking our British car to be sold in the UK and then flying home with cabin luggage only. That means I have a single suitcase of dimensions 55cm x 40cm x 20cm weighing no more than 10kg packed, to hold enough clothes for nine days including my running kit. Talk about putting my minimalist money where my mouth is! Clothes are no great problem; I’m not a fashion victim and will be quite happy in jeans, t-shirts and my comfy boots. However, making room for my trainers and several layers of running clothes seemed slightly problematic so I decided to have a bit of a practice pack.

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On the case of minimalist packing . . .

All was going swimmingly until I double checked the airline’s regulations and discovered that my handbag – my one and only handbag, in fact – is bigger than the permitted size, so I can’t carry it on as extra luggage to stow under the seat. At this point I have to confess to a few moments of air rage as it dawned on me that I would have to manage without my trusty bag during the whole trip just for the sake of a 90-minute flight. Nooooo! Obviously, I can’t shrink my bag but I did wonder if it would be possible to squeeze it last minute into the case. Now Roger has long referred to my handbag as the Bag of Doom and steadfastly refuses to go into it unless there is a dire emergency. Mmm, he might mock, but the truth is that bag has saved his bacon on more than one occasion; you know, those ‘Have you got a pen / tissue / euro / safety pin /nail clippers, etc, etc?’ moments. The problem is that rather than having a pen, I have a complete stationery department. Would you like a black biro or a blue fineliner or maybe a fluorescent green highlighter? Alternatively, there’s a handful of pencils, with a sharpener (or two) and eraser, of course. The nail clippers come with complementary use of tweezers and nail file, and I also have a sewing machine screwdriver and a corsage pin, because naturally I could need those things at any time. Tissues? No problem, how many hundreds would you like? Honestly, my bag is like the Tardis.  Maybe Roger has a point, after all. So, I took a very deep breath, emptied it completely onto the bed and started to sort the contents on an essentials-only basis.

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From Bag of Doom to Bag of Room!

My goodness, it was so ridiculous! I realised I’ve been carrying several gifts around with me simply for the sake of it: a cosmetics purse without any cosmetics but stuffed with a miscellaneous jumble of bits and pieces ‘just in case’ (of what, I’m not sure); a birthstone keyring without a key; a pretty little ‘bag in a sack’ (some kind soul obviously thought I might need overspill bag accommodation) and several pieces of jewellery I never wear. I’m still trying to work out why in the deep, dark depths I found my engagement ring (now back on my finger), a pack of paracetamol which is something I never take yet alone buy, an ancient turquoise eyeliner possibly dating back to my New Romantic phase circa 1983 and a protractor (?????) along with several unidentifiable objects which might have interested a desperate archaeologist (or pathologist) before I committed them to the bin. Phew!!! Get me and my new super-lightweight bag which will easily slip into the suitcase now, contents and all. The only question is: how long will I last as a not-so-bag lady . . . and what happens in the next safety pin emergency? 🙂

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Time to run for my life

Oh my goodness, is it really nine months since I first had the crazy, crazy idea of running a half marathon to mark my fiftieth birthday? It feels like it’s been quite a journey since then and with just days to go before we start travelling north in readiness for the big day, I think it’s time for a little reflection on the ups and downs of the last few months.

For starters, I’d like to say that no-one warned me running could be such an extreme sport. Living where we do, I always knew the training would be hard because there is no way of running from home without encountering hills. Steep ones. Lots of them. What I hadn’t bargained for was the effect of the weather. Take the last week, for example. First, I found myself getting up at 6am to go out and run before the sun crept over the mountain and temperatures soared into the thirties. I don’t mind an early morning but I prefer them when running isn’t in the mix. I have also been out on several short runs in unbelievably high humidity where it felt like there was a hot, wet rag covering my face; it was hard to breathe properly and so energy-sapping, I felt nothing but admiration for runners who train in similar conditions all the time. Then today, for my last really long run before the race, the heavens opened and rain poured down in torrents for the entire two hours.

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How can there honestly be any water left up there?

Now funnily enough, running 10+ miles in a non-stop torrential downpour doesn’t appear on my official training programme but after today, I think it should because in lots of ways, it was a really good experience. Whenever Roger has run the Lake Vyrnwy half marathon the weather has been perfect but having lived in mid-Wales for 17 years, we know what the weather is capable of and there’s a chance it will be pouring with rain . . . and several degrees colder . . . with a driving wind just for good measure. There is no way I can poke my head out of the door on race day, see horrendous weather and wimp out so it’s better to be prepared. I don’t intend to take up distance running with several litres of water sloshing about inside my running shoes any time soon but I do at least know now that it is possible to keep going under those circumstances. Ditto soaking wet running clothes (and underwear!). At least the great thing about skin is that once it’s wet it can’t get any wetter. After the initial yuk! moment, it doesn’t get any worse. Honestly, it doesn’t. 🙂

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Emptying the water out of my squelchy running shoes!

In a very strange way, I actually enjoyed this run because it reminded me why I wanted to do this in the first place and how far I’ve come in the process. I wanted a personal challenge and I certainly got one: this has been SO hard, physically and mentally. I have managed to find the self-discipline to train which has surprised me, but I still don’t ever look forward to a run. There have been days when I felt like I was running in concrete boots through treacle and others where my feet had wings. There have been low points with aches and self-doubt and tears, but like all bad times in life, they have passed; equally, there have been high points and surprises and things to celebrate and smile about. Have I changed? Well yes, I have. I am certainly much fitter than when I started (Roger says faster, too, but I’m not so sure about that one!) and if nothing else, I have proved to myself that with the right attitude, determination and effort, it really is possible to achieve what I thought was beyond me. That alone is a great lesson for life.

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Luarca 5k, my first race in Spain . . . so happy to see the finishing line.

In a former life I would have spent several days this week in an empty classroom, putting up wall displays, sorting out piles of new books and generally organising my plans, materials and thoughts for the new school year. Nowadays I run in torrential rain in northern Spain, causing some bemused looks from the cows and many smiles from my neighbours. Yep, there’s another deep notch carved into the post of Crazy Inglesa but you know what? It feels so good, so free and ridiculous, that several times during Drowned Rat Run I found myself laughing aloud at the nonsense of it all. Mad? Maybe, but it feels like living and that is a wonderful, wonderful thing. So I’m fifty and a granny but I still have plenty of living left to do. Here is a gift I hadn’t expected from this challenge, an even deeper zest for life and all its opportunities.

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A training run on the flat: bliss!

Of course, this challenge has been all about fundraising in memory of Lewis and he has been foremost in my mind on every run. I have been truly touched and thrilled by the generosity of others – not just in terms of donations, but also in messages of encouragement and support. I am completely delighted that over £500 pounds has been raised so far, money that will I hope bring some comfort and pleasure to the children and families in Rachel House Hospice. A HUGE thank you to everyone who has supported me – you’re all brilliant! I can’t say how excited I am starting to feel about catching up with friends and family on race day: there will be CHAS balloons and badges, fun and laughter, probably a few tears, too . . . but most of all, a celebration. Of Lewis. Of love. Of life. Am I ready? I think so. Bring it on! 🙂

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Gorgeous smile, gorgeous boy: this one’s for you, Lewis.

My JustGiving page

The Heather Moon

I love the Native American way of naming moons according to the season. Certainly, Corn Is In The Silk Moon would be a very apt name for this time of year here . . .

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. . . but for me, this is the Heather Moon. It is everywhere, purpling the banks around the house, the verges in the lanes, the woodlands, the rocky places and the mountainsides in every shade from palest lilac to richest magenta.

PICT0448 (2).JPGTaking some time out from renovation work, we followed its colourful trail high into the mountains a little further up our valley; so high, in fact, that we ended up in the clouds. Still, the views remained stunning and I am always in awe of the ingenuity and resilience of generations of human beings who have settled areas such as these, building houses and farms on the steepest and narrowest of ridges.

 

PICT0381 (2).JPGHigher still, and it was amazing how quickly we were in wilderness: no doubt in our minds that this was wolf country. We didn’t see any wolves but instead, sitting at the top of a high pass with awesome views down to the coast, we were treated to the magnificent sight of a pair of vultures wheeling over us with their mighty wingspans. The trip down was all heather and hairpins . . . oh, and a rather charming and relaxed traffic jam!

PICT0382 (2).JPGThere has definitely been a subtle shift in the colours of the landscape this week, a gentle reminder that we have tipped into the last month of summer. There are more golds and browns amongst the greens now as grassy hilltops burn up and maize fields wave pollen-heavy flowers like golden banners.

PICT0457 (2).JPGSomehow the change in light has made colours in the garden more intense, the French marigolds, rainbow chard, sunflowers and borlotti beans showing off their bright hues under sun or cloud.

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There are vibrant colours in flowers I have planted . .

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. . . and those that have appeared by themselves.

PICT0415.JPGRoger described the sunflowers in the veg patch as looking like a fountain and it’s a very apt description as they shoot skywards in a starburst of yellows and browns. One over-enthusiastic plant, too tall and top heavy in the dry ground, toppled over the fence into the lane and broke its stem completely. Sad, as there were still so many buds to come, but we have been enjoying the casualties as a splash of sunshine on the kitchen table. They are such incredible structures, almost surreal, which never fail to make me smile.

PICT0405 (3).JPGThere are some new delicately tinted beauties in the garden, too. The morning glory that grows wild in such abandon here is rich and velvety in imperial purple and indigo; I was slightly disappointed to see the long-awaited first flowers on the ones I planted couldn’t have been more different . . . but I suppose they have a simple charm in their pale hues.

PICT0419 (2).JPGWe have been enjoying the deep purply-black French ‘Bonica’ aubergine and the marbled green Spanish ‘Berenja de Almagro’; now it’s the turn of the rather beautiful Italian Rosa de Bianca – ciao, bella!

PICT0425.JPGPale beauty, too, in the new crop of peaches. The large juicy yellow ones more or less over, now it’s the turn of their smaller, more delicate cousins, white-fleshed with a rose blush around the stone. Small and sweet, these are perfect little dessert peaches.

PICT0440.JPGThere’s a little seasonal nuttery going on amongst the fruit trees.

PICT0437.JPGIt’s funny how fragrance has changed along with colours this week. One of my greatest pleasures this year has been the perfume of sun-warmed lavender from plants raised from seed last year. We have never been able to grow good lavender anywhere we have lived but at long last I think we’ve cracked it: the flowers and scent have been heavenly bee magnets for several months. However, recent days have seen a change in the perfume pecking order and now the garden is full of the heady fragrance of Japanese quince. I’m not complaining, it’s like nothing else and completely gorgeous!

PICT0431.JPGYesterday was a day of sunshine and high humidity which turned to rumbling thunder and short, sharp storms in the late afternoon. Having been driven in from the garden by a particularly heavy cloudburst, I witnessed a lovely scene through the kitchen window: a family of wagtails – seven in all – splashing and bathing in the barn troughing, literally using the run-off water like a power shower! They’re very well camouflaged in the photo – grey on grey –  but it just goes to show not everything in nature needs to be bursting with colour to be wonderful. 🙂

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