Staying put

Four years ago this week, we walked out of a notary’s office in Luarca as the proud new owners of Casa Victorio, a rundown hovel and several outbuildings set in eight acres of Asturian mountain pasture and woodland. For us, it was the start of a new adventure and – in all honesty – a huge leap into the unknown. Unlike France, where we had lived previously, we weren’t very familiar with Spain or Spanish culture before moving here and the only Spanish we spoke had been snatched from a few weeks of basic evening classes. (My brain was so fried linguistically that I wrote Espagna on our change of address notifications, a word I’d completely made up by mixing Spanish and French. Of course, it should have been España. I’m glad to say my Spanish has improved hugely since then!) Our move could quite easily have been an unmitigated disaster. However, as with any major decision in our life, we had asked ourselves one question: what was the worse thing that could happen? This has always been our acid test and it’s far more encouraging and empowering than all those ‘what if . . ?’ worries. It’s so easy to let a multitude of unwarranted fears stop us from shrugging off the cosy stagnation of an existence in our comfort zone instead of grabbing the opportunity to do something different, to really live life to the full. I’m so glad we took the plunge. Our life here is wonderful; it is, as the locals would say, una vida muy rica, muy preciosa.

Smoke from the chimney, veggies in the garden, washing on the line . . . this is our home!
Casa Victorio

Why, then, have we recently been contemplating the idea of leaving and returning to the UK? What on earth were we thinking? Well, for starters, there’s Brexit. We are not naive; before coming here we carried out masses of research and did the sums many times over but sadly lacked a crystal ball to tell us what would happen in the UK referendum held just one month after we moved here in May 2016. I have never wanted to use my blog as a political platform and I have no intention of starting now but suffice to say, Brexit has brought us no joy and done us no favours; stripped of the privilege of EU citizenship, our future here is very uncertain and may be a reason to leave in a ‘jump before we’re possibly pushed’ sort of way. On reflection, though, it has actually become a reason to stay, to enjoy and honour that very privilege that allowed us to be here in the first place. There are about 1000 UK nationals living in Asturias, scattered through the principality with no obvious expat epicentre; certainly, we are the only Brits in the village but as such, we have been welcomed unreservedly by our Asturian neighbours. True, they probably find us a little ‘exotic’ and eccentric but as immigrants living in their community and country, we could not have been made more welcome. They are the friendliest and most open, honest, tolerant and generous people I have ever met. A walk or run in the locality is more an exercise in smiles, waves, greetings and conversation than anything else; one elderly chap who walks miles every morning always greets me with a hearty ‘¡Viva la inglesa!’ and gives me a high five. You cannot put a price on such moments. It’s all about cultural exchange, about friendship and acceptance and kindness and being downright human towards one another regardless of nationality, colour or creed. Why turn our backs on something so precious?

Our friendly village

Far more important than the forces of shady political ideology is the climate crisis and here we have a conundrum: if we are truly committed to doing everything we can to leave a viable planet for our children and grandchildren (which we are), then isn’t it hypocritical to be living somewhere that necessitates foreign travel if we are to spend time with them? Surely a return to the UK where we could in theory draw a line under all future trips abroad is one of the greatest gestures we could make? Well maybe, but on reflection it’s not that straightforward because it’s not just about the travelling and any balanced judgement needs to be far more holistic. I’ve written about the WWF Carbon Footprint Calculator before https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/#/; it’s a somewhat imperfect and basic tool but it is useful in giving an idea of how our carbon footprint measures up and revisiting it every few months can be helpful in tracking improvements. Currently, we are weighing in with 7.5 tonnes of carbon in the last twelve months: that’s 72% of (or 28% less than) the UK government’s 2020 target of 10.5 tonnes per household. I’m pretty pleased with that; obviously we’re not going to be complacent – there’s always room for improvement, after all – but the fact is, this measure includes a return flight to the UK. True, take that away and we’re down to 7.1 tonnes (68%) but my point is, it’s the rest of our lifestyle that makes the biggest impact on green living . . . and ironically, much of that is down to climate.

Winters here are mild; some mornings can be a bit chilly but on the whole we don’t need much heating in the house. Like all old buildings here, the thick stone walls are designed to retain warmth in colder weather and keep the house cool in summer (although it’s never so hot as to need air conditioning). When we renovated the house, insulation was a top priority and the upshot of that is that we can heat the whole house with a single wood-burning stove. We fitted a couple of electric radiators and a heated towel rail as back-up but apart from testing them when they were installed, we have never switched them on. There is no heating at all in our bedroom; we simply don’t need it. In the run of mild weather we’ve had since Christmas, on many days we have only lit the stove in the evening and that is ample time to warm the house through as well as cook dinner, heat water and dry or air washing if necessary. The logs come from our own wood and as such are what John Seymour described as the best form of solar heating. We burn no gas or oil; we do use electricity but our consumption is a fraction of the UK and Spanish household average (in our last bill, less than a third of the cost was consumption, the rest was standing charges, tax and the like). We could not easily live like this through a British winter.

Logs seasoning against the horreo wall; once dried, they will be stacked inside the stone shed.

Climate also plays a key role in our food provenance. We grow most of our own fruit and vegetables and every meal is based round what’s good in the garden. Other food we source as locally as possible and much of what we eat is produced in Asturias – which has a similar area to Wales but a third of the population – or other parts of Spain. The benign climate means we can grow sufficient vegetables all year round and there is no such thing as a ‘hungry gap’; how can there be when the autumn-planted peas are dripping with pods in February?!

The vegetable garden is never empty: we are currently harvesting kale, broccoli, cabbage, Florence fennel, chard, carrots, beetroot, celeriac, leeks, parsnips, mizuna, mustards, Chinese cabbage, pak choi, rocket, landcress, lamb’s lettuce and spring onions.

The carbon footprint calculator also flags us up as lousy consumers. Our normal monthly expenditure is zero for new clothes and shoes (don’t need any), restaurant and takeaway meals (don’t want any) and pets (don’t have any). We spend a minimal amount on grooming products (mainly toothpaste) as I make most of our toiletries and the ingredients are pennies, and we never buy new gadgets, furniture or other household stuff unless something is totally broken and beyond repair . . . and we actually need to replace it. We live on a very low income but still save money each month because we simply don’t spend it. I’m not condoning travel but we usually drive to the UK rather than fly and even if we make two road trips like that a year, our annual mileage hovers around the average mark because when we’re here, we barely use the car at all. If we can reduce that to a single trip, our footprint will shrink even more. All in all, we can live the simplest of lives here, doing our best for the planet in as many ways as possible. Why leave in a hurry?

So, with the decision made to stay put we have turned our thoughts to a wave of exciting new projects which should help to improve our patch further and reduce our carbon footprint even more. Our starting point was the orchard which in many ways is an underused resource. I’m still reading and enjoying Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual and I particularly like his emphasis on a balance between ‘earth care’ and ‘people care’ and the need for places to work well for everyone and everything that inhabits them. Where the orchard is concerned, there is certainly more space for planting trees and possibilities for improving habitats for wildlife but also the chance to make it a more enjoyable and attractive space for ourselves. We started at the farmers’ co-op, choosing two locally grown bare-rooted trees, a greengage ‘Reina Claudia’ and cherry ‘Picota.’ (We plan to plant more citrus trees, too, but as they are all pot-grown there is no great rush). Planting two trees shouldn’t have taken more than a few minutes but when Roger started to dig the second hole, an ominous clang of spade against metal suggested this wouldn’t be so easy. Buried in the bank was yet another metal bedstead. Good grief, is there no end to them?

Cue a whole afternoon of stripping the bank back to remove the offending article, then shoring it up with a stone wall to create a small planting terrace – far more work than anticipated but hopefully we will be blessed with a good crop of cherries after giving the tree all that love!

How lovely that the excavation work had to be paused briefly to relocate a fire salamander; what a vibrant reminder of the rich diversity of life with which we share this space and the responsibility we have towards caring for it.

The orchard is a peaceful spot with lovely views of the village and valley and delicious green shade under the walnut trees in summer but we seldom spend time there because the land is so steep and access is difficult. Roger dug several turf paths when we first moved here but they are constantly undermined by voles and the slopes are very slippery, especially if the grass is wet. Time, then, to really sort the access issue out once and for all by making more permanent paths and digging in flat stones to create steps.

The beginnings of a stone staircase.

One corner is a real mess to tackle, a pile of rocks on a steep slope smothered in brambles with no way through. I know brambles are brilliant for wildlife but as we leave huge tracts to scramble through the wood, we don’t feel too bad at knocking them back a bit in this area. Underneath, there is a honeysuckle binding the bank together and a smattering of wildflowers; our plan is to add more native flowers as well as a few cottage garden ones for colour, scent and insect food. The huge tree stumps and rotting logs can stay.

Where do we start?

Last year, we decided to leave a large area of the orchard grass uncut and we were really thrilled with the resulting meadow. This year, we are going to extend that by leaving another bank uncut; it means less work and a better wildlife habitat – definitely a win-win. There’s a garden seat there that desperately needs a makeover . . . and that’s an important job as I suspect it will be much used this summer! 🙂

The orchard meadow last June, full of colour. . .
. . . and life.

We have a tremendous crop of wild strawberries here every year but we’d never got round to planting larger varieties, mostly because it’s hard to find a spot where they would get plenty of sunshine without spreading like stink and being hammered by slugs and snails. The solution, we decided, was to lift them above ground so Roger has created a funky planter from bits of scrap timber and odds and ends of green and black paint; those tall legs remind me a bit of the tripods in War of the Worlds but I’m hoping the chances of fruit will be better than a million to one! It’s a great way to make use of vertical space and hopefully will keep the slimy ones away from the strawbs. We’ve filled it with bare-rooted plants and potted up the spares for hanging baskets. Mmm, get growing, you lovelies.

The ‘courtyard’ is a tricky area and how to turn it into a more attractive space has us scratching our heads for inspiration. There is a lot of concrete. It’s uneven, ugly and, in this humid climate, attracts a covering of moss which can be lethally slippery so we have to sweep it on a regular basis. It’s useful to be able to pull a vehicle into the space for loading and unloading but we never park the car there and really don’t need so much hard standing. We have a few ideas in the pipeline but whatever we do, it will be quite a task.

The wall area between the house and horreo is part of the courtyard problem; originally well-built from local stone, it has been ‘adapted’ by a previous owner (I’m being polite here, the actual word I would use to describe what they did is far ruder) by the addition of several horrendous concrete features, including a set of completely wonky steps and a totally unnecessary vent that always makes us think of a World War II pillbox. We’ve fiddled at the edges with paint and plants to try and soften the impact, but if we’re going to make it look truly lovely, we definitely need to do some more work.

The horreo itself needs a bit of TLC and at last we are planning to do something we’ve been talking about ever since we came here. The middle ‘layer’ between the stone shed and wooden granary is an area that is open to the fresh air but protected from wind and rain by high stone walls and shady in the summer. It would be the perfect place to sit and eat, either when it’s too wet to be outside or on those few very hot days in the summer when we’re seeking evening shade. There was an old kitchen table and chairs left here which we could install, we just need to do something about the floor which is decidedly dodgy and in places, more hole than wood.

Our list of things to do has over 30 items on it; we’ve prioritised them and made a start but I know from past experience we will add to it as quickly as we tick things off. Our plans range from fairly simple ideas such as extending the varieties of perennial vegetables and herbs we grow to demolishing and rebuilding the Garage From Hell, from siting a homemade nestbox for red squirrels to investigating solar power now that the so-called ‘sun tax’ has been abolished and our electricity provider is offering valuable help with installation and management of systems. There’s much to be done but we love to be busy and, most importantly, we love living here . . . so we’ll linger. A while longer living in paradise? That will be tough, then. 🙂

The first of the peach blossom is in bloom. Beautiful.

A little taste of Luarca

Luarca: la Villa Blanca de la Costa Verde

Despite our resolve to stay at home for as much of August as we possibly can, there comes a point when even we have to admit it’s time to venture out to take care of business matters or stock up on food. In order to reduce journeys, we tend to leave things to mount up as long as possible then head off to Luarca, some 16 miles (26km) away, to get everything done at once. With a population of 4,800, Luarca is our nearest ‘proper’ town and the principal settlement in the municipality of Valdés . . . and we are seriously guilty of not giving it anywhere near enough attention. We go there to visit the bank or post office, do things at the town hall, have new tyres put on the car, whizz round the supermarket, see a doctor or dentist; it was there in the National Police station we were issued our residency permits and in the hospital we had medicals for our Spanish driving licences. We’ve been to the carnival and run in the annual 5K race – but when do we ever take the time to simply wander and wonder around those pretty streets?

It’s not that we aren’t interested; part of our problem is that we’ve never been town mice, so wilder, quieter spaces will always beckon first. When our car was due a service recently, we dropped it off at the garage and walked for several hours, not round the town but exploring the dramatically stunning coastline instead.

One of the places we visited was Playa de Portizuelo, a favourite haunt of Luarca’s most famous son, Severo Ochoa, who won a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1959. Spending time on that beach, experiencing the raw wild beauty of it and marvelling at the wealth and diversity of life contained in the simplest of rock pools, inspired his lifelong passion for science. I can understand that sentiment completely.

So, back to civilisation and this week, with a trip to Luarca necessary once again, we decided to allow ourselves time to explore a few parts – and views – of the town we have never seen. There is something quite lovely about those clusters of buildings layered on the hillside above the harbour; for me, they always bring to mind a sumptuous sugar-crusted, many-tiered wedding cake. No wonder it is known as the Villa Blanca. It’s as pretty as a picture.

Starting the climb up the steep hill to the view point of El Chano, we were afforded another wonderful view, this time looking inland. The mountains make a gorgeous backdrop in dusky greens and blues, and if you look beyond that vivid magenta bougainvillea, you can see the viaduct carrying the railway across the valley. That north coast line follows a spectacular route, and riding a small section of it is something we would like to do one day.

Higher still and the panorama opened into a wide sweep . . .

. . . and a most incredible bird’s eye view of the town. The building on the right is the ayuntamiento (town hall), standing elegantly in the recently refurbished Plaza Alfonso X el Sabio, now resplendent in pink! Those eucalyptus trees on the left dwarf everything around them; they are unbelievably tall.

There is formal tree planting throughout the town but what struck us on this wander was the sheer amount of wilder places, spaces large and small that are left to nature and are abundant in native plants and wildlife. It’s a perfect balance. Look closely at the photo below and you will see an entire stretch of stone wall (and most of a lampost!) draped in the rich indigo trumpets of morning glory. Is it a weed? Not in my book, and I’d have it over a formal bed of salvias or begonias any day.

I’ve never been a huge fan of towns set out on grid systems, all straight lines, square corners and military precision so I love the way the roads and lines of buildings follow the sinuous, serpentine curves of the río Negro (Black River) as it winds its way to the sea. In full spate after torrential rains, it’s a terrifying sight hurtling through the town but in its summer colours, it’s almost languid. Nearly there, the sea is just around the next corner . . . there’s really no need to rush.

When we reached El Chano, the view in every direction was breathtaking. Far, far below us people were setting up for the day on the beach and testing the water, some quite tentatively, others just plunging straight in. The sea may have been a bit on the chilly side but it was beautifully clear, rippling gently like a gorgeous bolt of shot silk.

There are in fact two beaches here; they aren’t the most picturesque in the area but are hugely popular and serve the town well. The harbour walls help to keep that famed Asturian surf at bay and the bright beach huts wheeled out for the summer season bring a cheerful splash of colour to the neighbourhood.

Turning to our right, there was a good view of the promontory of La Atalaya, setting for one of the most famous and most visited cemeteries in Spain. There is nothing morbid about that; the cemetery, cut from the rock by pickaxe in the 1800s and overlooked by the charming Atalaya chapel, is a place of perfect peace and tranquility where the interplay of pure white stone against the vivid blues of sea and sky is quite dazzling.

Luarca is a friendly, welcoming sort of place; it strikes me as a town that’s totally at ease with itself, completely comfortable in its own skin. Naturally, it’s a popular holiday destination and at this time of year it buzzes with tourist activity, whilst being on the Camino, there are footsore pilgrims drifting through much of the time, sticks in hand and iconic scallop shells dangling from their backpacks. What I’ve always liked, though, is the feeling that this is a town that is there for its inhabitants, not a seasonal place but one which has a healthy buzz all year round. The port is decidedly pretty but it’s still a commercial, working one; the fishermen may no longer live in the historic cobbled Barrio de la Pescadería through which we wound our way down from El Chano, but they are still upholding the proud seafaring tradition on which the town was built. The streets are packed with thriving independent businesses, their colour and quirkiness a refreshing change from the predictable monotony of chain stores, and the weekly outdoor market is a hive of activity.

Having walked back almost to our starting point, we crossed the river using the Kissing Bridge. You’d have thought there was a lovely story to accompany a name like that, but sadly it’s quite the opposite. Legend has it that a local lord, catching his daughter in the act of absconding with her pirate lover, decapitated the unfortunate pair on the spot; the bridge was built to remember the place where their final tragic kiss was exchanged. Happily, today it is a much-used crossing, a pretty setting for holiday snaps and a good place to watch the shoals of silvery fish busy in the shallows below.

A quick wander around the harbour brought our little excursion to an end; the nutty smell of freshly-ground coffee drifting out from beneath the café awnings was a tantalising temptation to linger a while longer but we still had several errands to attend to. What I know for certain is that we will go back: there is still so much to discover in this gem of a town . . . and who knows, maybe we’ll even stay for coffee next time? 🙂

Two’s company

Company: Middle English from Old French compaignon, literally ‘one who breaks bread with another.’

Isn’t ‘companionship’ a wonderful word? For me, it is imbued with a sense of warmth, comfort and reassurance like a well-worn pair of hiking boots or a slice of hot buttered toast. It’s about being together without fuss or bother, without any drama or making demands; a gentle sharing of time and place that enhances and enriches all those involved.

One of the things I’m dabbling in this year is companion planting in the garden. I last tried it some years ago in our French garden, but we were there for such a short time I didn’t really get to do it justice. I realise that it’s a concept – along with permaculture, no-dig, biodynamics and the like – that has orthodox eyebrows hitching and twitching but I’m happy to embrace such things, or at least give them a go. As far as I’m concerned, this doesn’t make me a dippy hippy, fluffy bunny, tree hugging eco-nut (but if that’s the worst that critics have to say, carry on). I don’t think there is a problem giving credence to ‘alternative’ ideas even if they haven’t been wholly scientifically proven.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of time for science. I’ve recently been reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Just About Everything, a well-researched and fascinating book that had my head zinging with all things scientific (and some pretty amazing word etymology, too). One of the stark realisations, though, is just how relatively recent so much accepted knowledge is; I was astounded to learn that the plate tectonic theory I lapped up for O-level geography in the early eighties was only a couple of years older than me! As for particle physics . . . it seems the more bigger brains look at tinier things, the less we can be certain of anything. Why, then, should we disregard ancient wisdom simply because we believe we can do things better? Yes, there’s a lot of superstition and misconceptions out there but also a great deal of knowledge and understanding that comes from centuries of patient observation and practical application.

What’s the worst thing that could happen? Well, nothing. It’s possible that nothing will happen or be different or better or worse, but at the very least we should have a garden that is crammed with colour and life and food and I’m happy to go for that. The green manure I’m experimenting with is in its own way a kind of companion planting and so far all is going well. The white clover, phacelia and yellow trefoil are all bombing up and what an interesting and enthusiastic little plant buckwheat is; it’s already forming thick carpets and I love the way its lime heart-shaped leaves catch the light.

One of my key aims this year is to strive for fewer problems with our brassica crops, and in particular the damage wrought by caterpillars. To this end, I started by transplanting a couple of dill seedlings to each end of the calabrese rows where they stand like sentinels on guard for the first hint of fluttering white wings. There were already a few self-set nasturtiums in the vicinity so I added to their numbers, too. Coriander is supposed to be another good companion so I’ve sown a row between the brassicas and couldn’t resist an extra sprinkling of dill down one side. These two were both very old seed (I never replant as they set themselves so freely) so I knew they may not germinate but felt it was worth a try. Cue dill forest! Finally, I’ve been potting up roots of spearmint, partly in a bid to curb its march across the garden but also to create Mobile Mint Units that I can move about and place in strategic positions. Forget belt and braces, this is extra buttons, a new zip and probably a pair of spare trews, too . . . but if it keeps the beasties at bay, it will have been well worth the effort.

Elsewhere, I’ve been planting out basil. This is a great companion to so many things and with a hugely successful germination rate this year, I’ve been able to spread it far and wide, in the polytunnel, the garden and the fingers-crossed tomato patch. I’ve tucked some under the grapevine, along with an oregano and a couple of geraniums – just need to add hyssop and the grapevine band of friends will be complete. I goes without saying that many flowers act as companion plants by drawing in the pollinators and we are already a long way down the path with that one, especially the irrepressible self-setting crazies: calendula, nasturtium, borage, Californian poppies, field poppies, cerinthe and hollyhocks. Roger has gently suggested I might like to curb my indulgence of these rascals a tad and I have to concede, he has a point: this is the current state of the path along the bottom of the main vegetable patch and I suppose it’s not too unreasonable expecting to be able to walk along it?

As you can see, we’ve had to tread a new path above the floral chaos which eats into precious planting space . . . but just look at the vibrant gorgeousness of those graceful poppies, filling my heart with such joy! They are hosting a bumble bees’ feeding frenzy inside their silken petals so who am I to disturb them?

There’s another frenzy in action along the fence line of the top veg patch, this time in the form of the passion flower. If ever there was a successful pairing, then it must be this showy seductress and the Asturian climate; if it weren’t for the indomitable kiwi, I would say I’ve never seen anything grow faster. This year’s floral spectacular has just begun . . .

. . . but now she’s taking things literally to new heights. This flower is halfway up a peach tree!

Moving in the opposite direction down the fence, the passion flower is also mingling companionably with the pink-flowered jasmine beesianum, which in complete contrast has to be one of the most disappointing specimens I’ve planted here. The flowers are tiny and totally underwhelming; even now the plant itself is beginning to spread itself in graceful evergreen arches, the impact of colour and scent is minimal. Perhaps I’m spoilt by the sheer allure and verve of the white jasmine but there is a certain despondency about this plant; I’m really not a fan.

However, there are always two sides to a story and not everyone shares my gloomy opinion: those minuscule flowers are a bumble bee magnet, the whole plant literally thrums with their excited attentions. They visit each little pink trumpet for a nanosecond, so capturing one in a photo was a study of extreme patience and a lot of good luck.

I adore colour, crave it in my life, in fact; it’s one of the many, many reasons I love Spain so much. At this time of year, the garden and wild areas pop and explode with joyful, reckless exuberance that has me turning cartwheels. I would make a hopeless garden designer, those elegant, sophisticated borders of limited hues – so clever, so beautiful – are really not my style. I need rainbows, paintboxes, confetti cannons, everything mingling and jingling, clashing and clamouring and knitted together only by the calming influence of green. The local way of growing flowers – stuffing bits and pieces into every nook and cranny, then letting them do their own thing – suits me so well. I might not have deep borders of stylish perennials but this kaleidoscope effect makes me so happy; it’s like a giant tube of Smarties!

I also love those little dabs of unexpected colour, the wild things that have invited themselves to the party.

As the season shifts a gear and the temperature shuffles up a few notches, the geraniums (or pelargoniums, if you prefer) really come into their own. They are such reliable doers and I love their brazen attitude, shamelessly flaunting their bright hues for months on end.

Mind you, the roses are not averse to dabbling in a bit of that pink-and-red- together nonsense, too.

Sweet William has emerged from its feathery buds to drive the butterflies to distraction with its clove-scented velvety vivaciousness.

In relatively muted tones, the globes of alliums add a modish touch with their beguiling starry globes . . .

. . . while the audacious delosperma explodes in an unapologetic fountain of shocking pink against the terracotta walls.

Of course, it is possible to have too much of a good thing so I welcome the pointillist spots of cool whites bringing light and levity to the colour riot and spangling the moonlit garden with silvery stars. What a range of personalities we have now, from sculpted waxen rosebuds to the lacy bridal froth of coriander.

Funny how nature has a way of adding a dab of colour even here . . .

Bitter leaves are something of an acquired taste but we love them so as part of my recent seed spree, I bought a packet of radicchio ‘Palla Rosa 3’ to plant later in the season and also chicory ‘Brussels Witloof’ which I’ve already popped into the ground. We last grew chicory in the aforementioned French garden and it was a huge success; it’s a strange thing, growing magnificent leafy plants just to lift them, reduce them to roots and bury them in boxes of compost in the dark. The resulting chicons are delicious, though – we always indulge in some when we are in France so what a treat it will be to have our own. The short row of wild rocket in the polytunnel just refuses to stop growing and go to seed; it provides the perfect companion for the beetroot growing next to it in a heady colourful combination of bitter and sweet on the plate and palate.

With the porch re-roofed and newly decorated, the major house renovation work is finished at long, last. Almost three years to the day we moved here, we finally have our very own hogar, dulce hogar! After so many months as working partners, it’s lovely at last to have the time to be walking partners and enjoy a relaxed evening stroll from home. My favourite route is the two-mile wander through woodlands to the small river that cuts a deep valley beyond the house; it is particularly beautiful at this time of year when the landscape is so very, very green.

I have tried before to describe the sheer depth and scale of this verdant paradise but words always seem so inadequate. Forget the tranquil weaving harmonies of Vivaldi’s spring idyll; this is Beethoven’s 5th on steroids, a roaring, rumbustious chlorophyll-fuelled symphony of bursting life and new growth.

The chestnuts are always the last to arrive but they have tiptoed noiselessly onto stage in the past two weeks; the woodland cast is now complete.

There are plenty of supporting characters playing their parts, too. Foxgloves drift in elegant spires, their freckled bells a delirium of bee activity.

The dappled shade reveals cool beauties . . .

. . . whilst splashes of sunlight host butterflies, blue as dainty shards of sky.

There is a magic to this place: the interplay of sunlight and shadow, leaf and lichen, boulders and birdsong, moss and mountain. I lose myself in the gentle babbling of clear water on rock, the peaty scent of damp earth and sun-warmed bark, the enfolding peaceful wildness of it all. Asturias may have been the cradle of Spanish Christianity but there lingers a pagan song here, an untamed green heart beating to a more ancient rhythm.

So, home again and time to reflect on how far the last three years have brought us. What a mad journey of adventure in a new land. What a crazy, quirky, little home in a stunning landscape.

What a very special place this is to live, love and enjoy each other’s company. Who needs any more than that? 🙂

Breathe


The proper use of science is not to conquer nature but to live in it.

Barry Commoner

I have loved language for as long as I can remember. It’s a very simple thing, really: words fascinate me. Take the origins of ‘inspiration’ for example, a word that came into Middle English via Old French from the Latin inspirare, meaning literally ‘to breathe or blow into’ and figuratively ‘to excite or inflame’; in English, the original meaning suggested a divine being imparting a truth or idea to someone (the word ‘spirit’ comes from the same root). I love the idea of taking a deliciously deep breath of sweet fresh air and filling my very core with the excitement and challenge of a new idea to try . . . and isn’t it fascinating how inspiration can sometimes come from the most unforeseen sources or at the least expected times?

My inspiration in recent weeks has come from a book first written in 1978, The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. I’d actually read much of it in bits previously but after a long-needed nudge (thanks, Sonja!) I finally sat down and read the whole work . . . and as I did so, I felt that wonderful tingling breeze of inspiration in the air. I’m not planning to rush off and grow rice on a Japanese mountainside, but there is certainly plenty of Mr Fukuoka’s wisdom and experience that could be applied to life here on our Asturian mountain.

The first point that resounded with me was the idea of using everything we have here as much as possible; we aren’t – and won’t be – self-sufficient, but we do go a reasonable distance in that respect, and it’s important that we make full use of what we have. For example, it’s so easy at this time of year to look at the garden and think we’re short of things to eat as we’re edging towards that awkward ‘between seasons’ hungry gap and yet, looking again, we still have plenty. The salad leaves in the polytunnel seem for all the world to have gone over but setting out with open eyes to pick something to accompany a barbecue last week, I wasn’t disappointed.

There might not be huge quantities of anything but a combination of young chard and beetroot leaves, rocket, wild rocket and mizuna with spearmint, lemon balm, flat-leaved parsley, marjoram and chives, the first tender kohlrabi for some sweet crunch and a splash of colour from nasturtium, pansy, borage, rocket,violet and coriander flowers was a fresh and delicious bowlful of nutritious beauty. It didn’t need anything else, no extra bought ingredients just for the sake of it. So simple. Just perfect. (Still lovely the next day, too, the leftovers refreshed for lunch with our first spears of lightly steamed asparagus.)

I’m inspired to look further afield, too, and see what possibilities foraging for wild food might offer. If the salad leaves had been thinner on the ground, then young dandelion leaves and chickweed would have added a whack of spring goodness. It’s so easy to dismiss things as weeds when in fact they have great value; it’s time to wander through the meadow and woods and see what overlooked treasures we could be putting to good use in the coming months.

In our holistic approach to simple living, making good use of our resources extends beyond the food we grow. The days when we will be lighting The Beast, even just briefly in the cool of morning or evening, are now numbered so making the most of that free heat is essential, especially when it comes to preserving foods we have harvested. I caught a snapshot of our kitchen worktop which says it all: the jar of sourdough starter out of the fridge, fed and working on a a bubbly sponge for breadmaking later; jars of peach marmalade made from a bonus bag of fruit we found lurking in the depths of the freezer; a tray of roast squash cooling before freezing for soup (two more in the oven) and the rest of the squash ready for processing; a tray of seedy crispbreads fresh from the oven for lunch. It might be a simple life but it’s also a busy one!

Sam and Adrienne, who love all things Scandinavian, introduced us to Trine Hahnemann’s multigrain spelt crispbread recipe. It’s taken me a while to get round to making them as I couldn’t find rye flakes anywhere but a substitution of a Spanish organic five cereal mix seemed like it might work. Oh my goodness, these crispbreads are the cat’s pyjamas! They are so easy to make, in fact I loved the therapeutically tactile business of pressing the warm dough flat with my hands so much that I was quite sorry when it was done. They just ooze good health somehow, are completely delicious and I have serious plans for them this year. In the garden, the rows of carrots and beetroot have germinated, the broad beans are dripping with flowers and the first peas are literally days away from eating . . .

. . . bring on the veggie hummus. This is such a brilliant way of not only enjoying fresh garden produce but using up bits and pieces of leftovers, too. To get us started, a sultry, spicy, caramelised roast squash hummus zinging with the heat of homegrown chillies. Fantastic.

Mr Fukuoka’s words also had me reflecting on herbs. When we moved here, we gave most of our books away, just keeping one small bookcase of treasured tomes; two of those are herbals and it was with great glee and enjoyment I dug them out and pored over them again from cover to cover. We grow a good selection of herbs and I’m planning to add several new varieties this year but I’m the first to admit they are an underused resource. On the strength of using calendula successfully in my recent batch of soap, I set out to harvest more flowers while they are in their prime.

Some of these I set aside to dry, the others were packed tightly into a jar and covered in sweet almond oil. I’ve put them in the polytunnel amongst my tender seedlings; there they can bask in the warmth, creating an infused oil which I can use for making toiletries (and new lip balm recipe is next on the list).

Herbal tea is something else I know I should be pursuing; after all, relying heavily on commercial tea produced on the other side of the world is hardly good for my green credentials when I have a garden full of drinkables. Mmm, there is a slight problem here, though: I love tea. Not the slightly flirtatious green tea or the almost-there oolong but the full monty, rich and malty, tannin-laden black stuff, brewed properly in a teapot and drunk a large mugful at a time (milk in first, no sugar). I cannot begin to describe how hard reducing my tea consumption is, especially as I have tried – really tried- to like herbal teas in the past and have failed miserably every time. Leafy, flowery, fruity . . . you name it, I’ve drunk it and hated every mouthful. However, I need to get a grip, especially as bought tea is not really the best of things: highly processed, over-packaged, racking up the food miles and – horror of horrors – some teabags contain plastic which leaches out of the compost into waterways and becomes part of the terrible microplastic problem in the oceans. So, deep breath: time to try the herbal stuff again. I decided to start with one of my favourites, lemon balm. I brought one small root with us when we moved here and in typical romping away and self-setting style, we now seem to have half a dozen good clumps spread about the patch, including the one below that popped up from nowhere beneath a clump of calla lilies.

Herbal teas require a lot more fresh leaf than dried so I picked a good handful, washed it thoroughly and set it to brew. The smell emanating from the pot could only be described as lemony spinach. Yuk.

It didn’t smell any better when poured into a mug (china, please note – I was trying very hard!) and there is just something about tea which is that insipid colour that really doesn’t do it for me. Anyway, the proof of the pudding and all that . . . What can I say? Well, it tasted – um – okay. In fact, I’d go as far as admitting it was quite pleasant and very refreshing. There are many stories about this melissa tea being a source of longevity and that may be true; even if I live to be a hundred, I’m not sure I’ll ever really love herbal brews but I’m committed to keep on trying. Honest.

Eucalyptus is another resource of which we have plenty. It’s a controversial thing, introduced from Australia and grown in huge swathes of forest as a fast-growing crop. Like any monoculture, it has a dubious impact on the environment and offers very little to indigenous wildlife. About two-thirds of our 4-acre woodland has been planted with eucalyptus, no doubt with a future harvest in mind, but the saving grace for us is that there is also a good amount of mixed tree varieties in there, too – mainly chestnut, oak, birch and holly – and a healthy understorey of gorse, Spanish heath and the like. It can’t be denied, though, that the eucalyptus is useful and we keep finding more ways in which we can make the most of it. Having almost burnt all the old roof timbers now, it will be eucalyptus that forms the basis of our log pile next winter.

Roger has hauled several long poles out of the wood this week which we will use to shore up the vegetable patch below the terraces in the top garden – call it an anti-mole device in this respect! Having made eucalyptus oil from the leaves a few weeks ago, I’ve now discovered that made into a hot infusion, they create a powerful and effective household disinfectant, another useful weapon in my green clean armoury. I’ve also gathered fallen strips of bark, soaked them in water to make them pliable and used them to line hanging baskets.

The flowers sit so high in the trees that we don’t often have chance to see them close up. They look fluffy from afar but in reality, they are exquisite pompoms of filigree strands and smell of honey: little wonder the bees go so crazy for them. A single stem provided an aromatic and simply sophisticated centrepiece for the kitchen table and once the flowers had gone over, I simmered the leaves for cleaning purposes. Nothing wasted . . . and I’m sure there are plenty more uses yet to be discovered.

The second strand of Mr Fukuoka’s philosophy which appeals to me greatly is his ‘do-nothing’ approach to cultivation. Now that doesn’t mean lounging about expecting a garden (or farm) of plenty to miraculously present itself; growing food requires an element of work and that’s fine by me (actually, I’ve never regarded anything in the garden as work, it’s far too enjoyable). The idea, though, is that instead of forever creating more chores in an endless cycle of ‘What else could I / should I be doing? ‘ there is a shift to a ‘What happens if I don’t do something?’ mentality. In short, back off, stop trying to control everything and give nature free rein to get on with it. Music to my lackadaisical little gardening ears indeed. I have to confess I am some way along this path already, as the lemon balm tale above illustrates. I’m happy to let things spread and seed around the garden if that’s what they want to do; it’s no hardship to whip out anything that springs up in an awkward place but otherwise I believe self-set plants are happy plants and who cares if Californian poppies peep out from amongst the leeks or parsley settles itself beneath the roses? Last year I raised a handful of cerinthe plants from seed; this year they are everywhere, in every crack and cranny, jostling for elbow room in pots and troughs and colonising walls like there’s no tomorrow. I love them. So do the bumble bees. They can stay.

I’ve never seen the point of pulling plants out before it’s strictly necessary, either. For a start, it’s more possible than we think sometimes to gather our own seeds; of course, some things won’t come true but that’s half the fun. I also happen to admire vegetable flowers and like to leave them until the last possible moment. Could anything be more exquisite than the few remaining salsify plants now flowering?

The Tuscan kale which has fed us so well since last autumn is in full bloom; I’m hoping to gather seed but in the meantime those buttery flowers are a pollinator paradise mingling against a backdrop of clematis montana ‘Elizabeth’ in a pretty colour combination I couldn’t have planned if I’d tried.

Every gardener knows that when you clear a patch of ground, you’ve hardly turned your back before nature starts filling it again, as though bare earth is something that simply can’t be tolerated. Well, thinking about it, it’s not very natural, is it? A well-cultivated plot, all tidy rows with hoed bits between, might be a feast for the eyes but it’s purely an aesthetic thing: nature would not create the same left to its own devices. The ‘do-nothing’ approach advocates keeping as much ground covered as possible for as long as possible, using simple mulches, green manure and even – yes, it’s true – weeds. True, I struggle a bit with the latter idea but green manures are something I am definitely going to try. I have no problem with keeping bare earth covered, which is why I’m happy to let nasturtiums trail about the vegetable plots like jewelled carpets or turn a blind eye to the poached egg plants currently making a takeover bid on one of the terraces.

My plan is simple: to try six different green manures in various parts of the garden this year and see how we get on. Globe artichokes grow like crazy here; we are close to eating our first picking of the year and on the strength of their enthusiasm, I planted a hedge of them at the end of the garden last autumn.

My plan is to underplant them with white clover as a permanent thing; Roger is a tad nervous about the sense of this which I do understand, given how enthusiastic clover is, too, but I’m willing to take responsibility should we end up with clover chaos.

The other patch earmarked for the clover treatment is in the top garden, beneath and between fruit bushes; here we have planted three blueberry bushes and also two autumn raspberries which have currently pushed up over 40 new shoots. Yikes! Maybe the clover will meet its match up there. Note the self-set nasturtiums gathering strength in the foreground, too; something tells me bare earth will be a thing of the past in this area very soon.

I’m also planning to try sowings of buckwheat and trefoil between rows of vegetables and under the bean tripods – to be cut and left as a mulch before they seed – and a winter mix of Westerwold ryegrass and vetches to be dug in next spring. A patch of phacelia, too, but in all honesty I just know that will be left to flower for the bees! It’s interesting and exciting to be trying something new and different, to be putting a slightly different slant on how we do things . . . and why not? After all, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain and if it helps the soil, the wildlife and our harvest, that’s fantastic news. Breathe in. Be inspired. Over to you, nature! 🙂

The more of less

 “If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness. ” 

The Dalai Lama

I think that ‘less is more’ is likely to be our motto for life this year. Take this blog, for example. I love blogging but this is the first post I have written for almost a month: less writing means more living. With the house renovation practically done, we can spend less time indoors and more time outside where we both prefer to be. Fewer planned visits to the UK will mean more time to explore Spain, both near and far. Fewer trips to source building materials or cart rubbish away means more time to simply ‘be’ at home, enjoying the beauty of this special place in which we live.

Living simply, however, doesn’t mean living lazily, and the first few weeks of the new year have seen us busy in so many ways. It has been wonderful to finally turn our attention to the lengthy list of outdoor projects that has been waiting in the wings for so long and – up until this week – the weather has been warm and dry and fully conducive to getting out there. One of the very first jobs I did when we moved here was remove hundreds of plastic bottles that had been tied to the fence at the end of the vegetable patch: goodness, that seems like a lifetime ago now! At long last, we have replaced the fence, taking in a couple of metres of field for extra planting space as we went. I suppose we should be thankful that there were no bedsteads involved this time but it was the usual mess of metal props, mesh and netting knitted together with endless strands of barbed wire, all on an impossibly steep slope.

There is much to do at this end of the garden, including tidying up the neglected horreo, but it’s amazing how a new fence has already changed the outlook and smartened things up. I’m planning to plant globe artichokes raised from seed inside the fence; if they grow half as well as our current plant, they should make a handsome hedge of silvery blue-green fronds. Beats plastic bottles in my book!

Our farmer friend Jairo delivered a huge trailerload of muck so we spent a couple of afternoons shifting it by hand to make a goodly pile in both vegetable patches, where it will rot down over summer into a pile of gorgeousness ready for spreading in autumn. Combined with homemade compost it is a rich, natural feed for our soil, the very stuff of gardening dreams. We’ve been hauling logs, too; how incredible that even in the depths of January, we are still putting more into the log shed than we are burning. I like that. The seating area on the courtyard is one of our most-used places, a favourite ‘room’ where we love to take a coffee break, eat meals or sit and watch the sunset. We’ve managed this far with the ugly and horrendously uneven concrete surface but at last plans are afoot for a serious makeover: a stone surround filled with building rubble to level everything, then covered in some huge stylish slates we saved from the old roof. Blimey, we won’t know ourselves!

Freed from the huge burden of house renovation carpentry, Roger has been enjoying himself with some more interesting projects. Having had to admit that our trusty old blue bench is literally on its last legs and really only held together by the paint, we decided it was time to replace it before there was a nasty accident (I hate the idea of our lovely old neighbour toppling off a rotten seat as he stops to catch his breath there). The old bench has been moved to a little-used corner (it’s still safe for one person if you know exactly where to place your behind!) and meanwhile, Roger has fashioned a new version from the wooden base of a single futon we have had for 25 years. With a lick of that Peacock Blue, it’s just the job . . . now all we need is the sunshine back. (To the left of the wall, you can see the river raging down the valley in full spate after 24 hours of torrential rain.)

Bits of planks left over from making the stairs have been fashioned into smooth, circular pot stands; these are just perfect for our ‘stove to table’ approach to cooking and are a welcome replacement for our disgracefully shoddy table mats. Treated with a food-safe oil, I’ve found they also make nifty little chopping boards.

Now, let me tell you about that rather lovely paring knife . . . a recent and rare indulgence I’m happy to own up to. It was made by my nephew Harry https://www.facebook.com/GoughCutlery/ who, for several years, has been perfecting the art of creating bespoke cutlery and believe me, what he doesn’t know about metallurgy isn’t worth knowing. I fell in love with this beautifully-crafted creation of stainless steel and recycled laburnum (fond memories of our hedges in Wales which had been planted with laburnum for tool handles), its size, shape and weight are just right for me and it is so sharp I swear you could slice air with it. There is something so satisfying using a piece of equipment like this that has been handmade with such care and attention, the application of an ancient art to modern living. Looked after properly and sharpened on a leather strop, it will probably last us for ever. Thank you, Harry!

So, after two months of virtual drought which has seen me watering pots and troughs to keep everything alive, nature is paying her debt with more water than we know what to do with. No problem, the garden was greatly in need and I have had plenty of indoor things to keep me busy. As cloth food storage bags and cotton hankies have been such a roaring success, I have sewn more of both. I finally dug out my dyeing equipment and dyed a skein of laceweight Merino for a gift; I’d forgotten just how much fun and how satisfying the dyeing process is.

Having sorted through my treasures in the attic, I am resolved to spinning far more this year as there is still quite a stash of fleece up there waiting to become socks (or other woolly delights). I’ve knitted a new pair of socks for Roger – having made them for practically everyone else last year, I thought it was about time! – and crocheted an intricate bohemian scarf as a birthday present. Gift wrap is such an environmental nightmare that I prefer to use brown paper which can at least be recycled or composted but it is a bit – well – brown. I flirted with the idea of printing with acrylic paint to jazz it up a bit but in the end I decided scrap yarn and old buttons were more my thing.

On the subject of scrap yarn, I’ve already made a patchwork blanket from leftovers but still seem to have oodles of colourful possibility left. I’m having a ball turning the more neutral colours into tiny finger puppets for little fingers; my Christmas gift to Ben, William and Evan is the promise of a regular parcel of ‘Puppet Post’ throughout the year. They are great fun but so fiddly! I’m enjoying evenings in front of the fire, rippling away at the ‘Cottage’ crochet blanket I bought with a birthday voucher last year but when it’s finished, there will be yet more spare wool . . . so inevitably, another patchwork event is on the cards. This time, solid three-round granny squares which take only four grams of yarn each which means I can use the tiniest scraps; this is the perfect pick up / put down project which will be good to take on my travels, too. It really has to be the most clueless of all my blanket projects so far: I have no idea what shape or size it will be as I have no idea how many squares I will end up with. Random or planned colour pattern? Joining? Border? No rush.

We kept free-range hens for over twenty years and I have to confess to missing a few about the place, I love their comic antics and, of course, the bounty of fresh, free-range eggs. We are lucky to have a regular supply from our neighbours but when they don’t have a surplus, I have started buying them from https://pazodevilane.com/en/, a Galician company whose philosophy I love.

The hens range freely in pastures just as ours did; their eggs are deep brown and speckled with tough shells and huge golden yolks and are some of the best we’ve ever eaten. They come ungraded (but with a minimum weight) in a sturdy cardboard box which is designed to be re-used; every year, the company asks customers to send ideas for their use and for every idea submitted, a tree is planted. This is definitely my kind of thing so I’m hoping that turning a box into a soap mould will be worthy of a new tree for future hens to scratch under.

The soap in question was actually my first attempt at solid shampoo using locally-sourced ingredients plus some goodies from https://www.thesoapery.co.uk/ : olive, coconut, castor and avocado oils, shea butter, tea tree and lavender essential oils. It was fascinating to observe a different set of ingredients undergoing the saponification process; the resultant bars are silky and herbal and hardening nicely . . . and when fully cured, I have just the box to store them in!

Less complicated than soap, I’ve also made solid hand lotion bars by melting the beeswax I purified before Christmas with coconut oil, shea butter and cocoa butter. Warmed gently between my hands, the bar melts into a rich, unctuous cream which feels and smells wonderful and can double as a lip balm. I’ve put one in an old Lush tin to carry in my handbag, and an empty gift tea tin is perfect for storing the rest until needed.

Eucalyptus forests and their processing factories are a hot environmental issue here and understandably so. The bright side for us, however, is a ready supply of leaves, bark and wood which we can put to good use in many ways.

What a simple pleasure it was to wander through our dripping woodland under my brolly this week to pick a handful of glaucous leaves, spicy scented and sparkling with raindrops. Using a recipe from James Wong’s Grow Your Own Drugs, I heated the leaves gently in almond oil with pine resin, cinnamon and cloves – mmm, the house smelt wonderful.

This would make a splendid winter bath oil, if only we had a bath! No problem, it’s just as good stirred into a basin of hot washing water, sprinkled onto a hanky or a steaming bowl as a decongestant or used as a body and massage oil, lovely on aching muscles after a hard run. It is so deliciously aromatic that I’m also tempted to try it in a batch of soap . . .

Second only to the ubiquitous eucalyptus, kiwis are another vigorous import whose exuberance rewards us with several month’s worth (and what feels like several tonnes) of fruit. Late February generally sees the end of our fresh supply so this week I’ve been experimenting with drying them to keep as a healthy snack; I’m thinking they would be particularly good to carry on long walks. Without a dehydrator or the desire to run an electric oven on low for several hours, it’s a game of chance played out on top of The Beast but so far, so good. Now it’s just a case of beating the blackbirds to the remaining fruit.

As part of our continuing efforts towards zero waste, this year I’ve decided to do things differently where recycling is concerned. We normally store our recycling in the underhouse barn then, every few weeks, load it into the car and deposit it as part of a trip out to do other things. No more. This year, I’m taking personal responsibility for carrying it weekly down to the village recycling point which is half a mile from home. There are three reasons behind my decision. First, Roger has spent several hours clearing the junk (yet another pile belonging to the former owner plus our own post-renovation stuff) from under the house, creating a clean, wide-open, useful space; it just no longer seems right to be met at the door by a mountain of recycling. Second, it’s a nice little jaunt in the fresh air which rings the changes from running and yoga, gives me the chance to chat with neighbours and provides a decent workout pulling myself back up the cruelly steep hill home. Third – and most important – by dealing with our recycling in amounts that I can comfortably carry, I’m hoping to shift the focus from collecting to connecting, from mindlessness to mindfulness. Recycling is fine but reducing is better and I’m on a mission to look for more ways where we can do just that. How gratifying that the very first week suggested a possibility . . .

Doing the recycling . . . spot my red coat between the bins!

Bundling up the plastic waste ready for my Recycling Ramble, I quickly realised what a lot of yogurt we eat. It’s little wonder that with such an abundance of lush pastureland, Asturias produces dairy foods of the highest quality and we are only too happy to indulge in thick and creamy local Greek-style yogurt on an almost daily basis . . . but I only had to look at the pile of plastic packaging to realise Something Had To Be Done. Cue my first ever go at making yogurt, not without a certain sense of trepidation because if I am totally honest, I expected to produce an unpleasantly runny, acidic substance that neither of us would really like. Well, nothing ventured and all that.

The process was ridiculously simple: after scalding the modest pile of equipment with boiling water, I warmed fresh whole milk to body temperature, poured it into a kilner jar, stirred in a couple of tablespoons of yogurt (not our usual one as there was no indication that it contained live cultures so I opted for one of those ‘probiotic’ thingies instead), covered the jar in a pile of towels and snuggled it up next to The Beast overnight.

Wow, but how I smiled next morning to find a jar full of thick, sublime deliciousness!

Shameless in my quest for the true Greek-style effect, I turned the lot into a colander lined with a clean tea towel and let some of the whey drain off; oh my goodness, I could die happy eating this stuff, it is so thick and fresh and clean and mild and divinely yummy.

I shall keep a bit back for a new starter which means no more plastic pots and lids, just one extra milk bottle per shop and homemade yogurt for ever. Happy, happy day. By the way, the whey didn’t go to waste, either; it’s a good food with many uses, so Roger whacked it into his spelt and seed sourdough, making a scrumptious loaf to accompany squash and chilli soup served with chestnut croutons for our dinner. Not a shred of recycling (just composting) in that homegrown, home-cooked little lot, just great wealth and pleasure from living simply with less . . . and for us, that’s what it’s all about! 🙂

SOS 24th November

We’ve been away for more than three weeks and after a time of frantic busyness and many, many miles travelled, it felt so good to arrive home late on Thursday by the light of an exquisitely beautiful full moon. All things considered, this is not a bad time of year to leave the garden to its own devices but needless to say, I was impatient for daylight and the chance to explore the changes that have taken place in our absence. Autumn has certainly happened, the valley bathed in seasonal colours and carpets of leaves; that said, it has obviously been very dry and – after several days of penetrating frost and snow flurries on the back of a bitter easterly wind in northern France –  a return to the cosy Asturian wrap-around warmth is sheer bliss. In fact, I felt such excitement and contentment at being back on our little patch of mountain that in a sudden rush of blood to the head, I decided a Six On Saturday moment was called for. Unpacking, laundry and all the rest can wait: welcome back to my garden! (Apologies for the wordiness, I haven’t blogged for weeks so needed to scratch a writing itch . . . feel free to skim! :-))

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We gorged ourselves on fresh figs right up until leaving at the end of October; they are over now but in their place is the new star of the fruit world – kiwis. I spend most of the year cursing this plant for its thuggery and taking the loppers to it every month or so to save the washing line, pear trees and a barn (truly!) from being totally engulfed. Ah, all is forgiven now as the vine drips with luscious fruits, sweet and juicy and just perfect as a post-run snack. We discovered last year that there is no need to harvest and store as the fruits sit quite happily on the vine in tip-top condition (whatever the weather) until April. By then, the birds will be helping us to finish the stragglers but who could complain after five months of such bountiful PYO?

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Staying with fruit and there is great excitement in the orchard as the first baby lemon continues to survive and grow. We planted the ‘Eureka’ tree a couple of years ago and should have seen the first fruit forming last year had it not been for a savage winter storm ripping off most of the foliage. We honestly doubted its chances of survival but it has fought back, nurtured through last winter and most of the spring in a blanket of fleece. The established lemon trees growing locally fruit all the year round so fingers crossed this little pioneer will be the first of many happy citrus moments.

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I know I’ve featured our anniversary ‘For Your Eyes Only’ rose before but I make no apology for slipping it in again as we have come home to yet another mass of gorgeous blooms – it’s the fourth time this bush has flowered in 2018. We really couldn’t ask any more of it, could we? I love it to bits. Enough said.

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The rose was one of a tiny handful of precious plants we brought with us when we moved here; previous moves have seen me lifting and potting small roots of virtually everything in the garden to take with us but as we shifted our entire lives to Spain in nothing more than a transit van and trailer, space was more than limited. No worries, there was plenty to work with here and one of the things I love about restoring a neglected patch is saving established beauties to maintain a sense of the garden’s history as well as adding my own stamp. As flat planting space is so limited, plants have been crammed into every nook and cranny, leaving many of them struggling for air. One such example is a fuchsia, very old and straggly and almost totally buried under climbing roses and Japanese quince by the steps to the kitchen. It’s a sad looking specimen but this year managed to send out a few pathetic green shoots which I promptly snipped off, poked into a pot of compost, stuffed in the polytunnel and forgot about (sorry, Mr P, but propagation has never really been my strong point). Anyway, the propagation gods must have been smiling as I now have three amazingly strong plants which have flowered for months and continue to do so. I have no idea what variety it is (maybe an expert out there can help with that one?) but I’m thrilled that one old plant at least has been restored to its former glory.

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I don’t do a lot of shopping to bring home with us (although boxes of good quality Assam tea are always on the list!) but couldn’t resist the temptation of a few packs of bargain bulbs. Tulips grow well here, so I’m hoping the dusky bluey-purple of ‘Blue Spectacle’ and pink-flushed cream of ‘Crème Upstart’ will serve as perfect complements to my predominant purples. Scilla ‘Blue Arrow’ and Ornithogalum ‘Arabicum’ are both new things to try and being native to southern Europe, I’m expecting great things of them. Okay, so the allium caeruleum ‘Azureum’ is native to Siberia but I just couldn’t resist the promise of that gorgeous blue! I couldn’t find freesia corms to boost my collection anywhere but was very delighted to chance on some ranunculus; inspired by the beauty of Jane’s Mudgee Garden , I’m hoping those strange, claw-like little bulbs will provide a colourful splash of frivolous frills come summer.

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Finally, I know I’m a sad muppet who needs to get out more but I was hopping and skipping with joy at the chance to go forth with my trug and collect vegetables for our first homecoming dinner. To me, this is what it’s all about: all those weeks and months of gnashing teeth and tearing hair over bad weather, poor germination, pesky pests . . . this is why I don’t give up gardening and do something more boring instead. From garden to kitchen in foodsteps, not miles, from patch to plate in moments. Yes, they are dirty and wonky and maybe a little nibbled here and there but there is nothing – nothing! –  to compare with the flavour and texture of homegrown vegetables. Florence fennel, autumn carrots and three types of kale. Perfect.

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Time for me to pop over to The Propagator’s site and see what other gardeners are sharing from their lovely gardens this week. Why not join me? Forget Black Friday, Six On Saturday is far more interesting and definitely better for the soul. Happy gardening until next time! 🙂

Signing off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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