I’m not easily stunned these days, by fiesta firecrackers at my feet, by a snake curled in the flower tub beside the front door, by the blunderbuss volleys of mountain thunderstorms.
But Josep Sancho Barceló and his cousin Dolors have brought an enduring bewilderment to our home in the echoing valleys of The Priorat.
We, like you perhaps, grow increasingly sensitive to history: maybe because we will be history too, one day. Whatever the workings of the mind, living somewhere with mysteries (which means everywhere, naturally, but especially in antiquated abodes), makes me wonder at length about context, legacy and if life ever really ends if we try to remember.
Who laid those dry-stone walls? Who lived here? Who washed their clothes in the pool and scrubbed them on the angled stones outside my office window? The pieces of the impossible puzzle that is Mother’s Garden, a vast jigsaw of timelines and souls, lies scattered in the conscience.
Like all ancient houses that have no wealth of records, all you possess are local histories handed down, worn stairs, old keys and your imaginings. It is not much to go on. Now, as I write and stare, I know that the swathe of limestone skyline that fills the window beyond my computer had once held the eye of Maria Soler Benages as she washed dishes in the old stone sink. And I can see her face.
First, though, let me take you back to our first fleeting understandings of how life must have been for the last people for whom this gorgeous space was home before it was abandoned in the Sixties. We acquired the farmhouse and overgrown acres in 2000 from a family who had made the building weatherproof but had never lived in it. They had bought the derelict farm in the late 1980s as a place to spend a day or a weekend away from their bustling lives in Tarragona, capital of the Costa Daurada.
They did enough, thank goodness, to arrest the decay, re-roofing the house and barn, restoring a basic water supply and septic, and re-establising a kitchen of sorts. And along with the vast front door key they passed on to us photographs of how it had been when they had first encountered it – long forsaken with ceilings open to the skies and yawning, rotten doors that led to evidence of spirits, entombed in cobwebs.
Everywhere across these valleys there are the sorrowful faces of vast stone farmhouses where, through broken windows, you can see how time and weather have torn the heart out of them. Some have not been inhabited since the bloodletting during the 1936-39 civil war. Like the great wherries sailed by the Broads water folk, they are the vestiges of a lost existence, the guardians and vessels of life stories and experiences that we race away from with ever increasing velocity. If only dwellings could speak to us.
That would have been Mother’s Garden fate, but for Enric and Nuria from Tarragona. They gave the farmhouse new life and then gifted us the chance to live somewhere exceptional and habitable, with the golden opportunity to leave our mark with further restorations. As for the echoes, we have gleaned stories but nothing so certain and so moving as what we have learned in recent days. Josep from Barcelona and Dolors from Andorra, now in the seventies, arrived arm-in-arm in 95 degrees of Saturday morning haze, their smiling eyes blinking with emotion and, perhaps, apprehension as to how the foreign owners of a key landmark in their lives would welcome them.
We were racing to get the cottage ready for new guests and it took a moment for the significance of their visit to dawn. Within the hour an astonishing chapter in the story of our home was unfolding, and after a flurry of Facebook and email exchanges we now have precious photographs of Josep and Dolors’ grandparents who farmed here for 40 years from the 1920s – Maria Soler Benages and Joan Barceló Castellvi, pictured with their dog in front of the barn. The quiet emotion we feel as a consequence of this very personal insight can be measured by the degree to which this place has drawn the smiles, tears, blood and sweat from us, how it enraptures still.
The gleaning goes on, but we know now that Joan, born in the village, married Maria from Badalona, near Barcelona, and they settled on the farm and raised two daughters, Maria and Juanita. One of their first endeavours was to build the bassa, the vast circular reservoir behind the house, where so many of the villager’s pensioners recall swimming when they were young. During the collapse of the republic and Franco’s Fascist retributions the family took refuge in the village convent and stayed there for six years, Joan labouring on farms to earn just enough to keep that other wolf, hunger, from the door.
Eventually they were able to return to their own land and in the subsequent decades an assortment of snaps of family gatherings were taken here, featuring Josep and Dolors as toddlers gathering armfuls of wonderful memories that they have clearly treasured all their lives.
Maria and Joan are pictured above, sitting outside the barn, next to a painting of the farmhouse from all those years ago, painted by their son- in- law we understand, with the vast pergola that was destroyed during a violent storm. How good to have this image of them.
As I write, I keep flitting to my email to see if either of the cousins can tell us what happened at the end of their grandparents’ time here, how the house fell into ruin, and to ask where they are buried so we may go and pay our respects. For sure I will have more to impart in September.
Meanwhile we pant. The final weeks of August, among the busiest of the year for us, have been the hottest and toughest we have know in 11 summers, with daily temperatures in the high 90 degrees Fahrenheit, night discomfort at circa 75 degrees and wildfire fears off the scale. A week ago it was still 93 degrees at 9.30pm.
Thank goodness it is never knee-bucklingly humid here. The regular stillness, locked with heat, drowns out the world as loudly as the whisper of an occasional airing-cupboard breeze through fig and iris leaves. Like the hour hand of a clock, this unremitting Mediterranean summer advances imperceptibly towards September and the easing of the baking bonds, as the sunflowers symbolically hang their heads, glory finally gone.
Do you recall the many close scrapes of our Norfolk springers Charlie and Megan? Well, their equally mad pocket-rocket replacements Tilly and Ted also keep hauling me out into the midday sun to search for them through hazel groves, vineyards and woodland. You would think, given the temperatures, they would have more sense. You would think I would too, but like the hapless owner of Fenton, the Richmond Park deer chasing Labrador whose disgrace has been witnessed by millions on YouTube, I can never stand idly by. He has my deepest sympathy.
Time to go. One last, important footnote. We are members of a 95-year-old farming cooperative, and have been working with the little village mill for seven years. As the world marks the Year of Cooperatives I will tell you next month why we think this movement of cooperation is so important – here, in Norfolk, across the globe. And we are very happy and proud to say that our olive oil has just won another gold star in the UK Great Taste Awards. Keep well.
There are places where time concertinas, when history thumps you in the chest. Marçà-Giné’s ledge, a 60-seconds eagle glide from Mother’s Garden, is one such cradle of whispers.
A vast lump of limestone, as big as a bus, rests, tilting slightly, at the rear of this human eyrie, beneath the summit of the little Miloquera mountain. Scars on the face of the cliff tell of where it once protruded, giving shelter to a Neolithic community. Scattered artefacts have been found, and suddenly you witness with your mind’s eye the trauma of that second it lost its grip. What – who – may be have been crushed beneath?
Fifty feet in front of it, half way to the lip of the great ledge and the mosaic vista of farms and forests in the river valley, a crumbling earth bank cannot hide its Roman secrets among the stones: A finger bone, the shattered end of a forearm relic. Who was it? What did that life amount to? What was their world, their experience, their voice?
The ledge, as ample as a football pitch and now only inhabited by the wind and tortoises, once offered the vital elements to an early existence – relative security, water from an inexplicably high spring, a closeness to the heavens. Beyond the Roman graveyard the neat footings of a temple run east to west. The twisting track from below is a way of sorrows, with Stations of the Cross leading skyward to a site of Christian devotion for the faithful.
And at the peak, 100 feet above the ages-old refuge, one defiant jagged corner remains to tell of the castle that looked down on the long lost timber homes that crowded this perch through the Dark and Middle Ages.
Over recent centuries the village has trickled to the base of the mountain and turned to brick, where, in one house among the many leaning into the narrow streets, Marçà-Giné was born in 1918. This renowned sculptor and later-life recluse was the final master of the ledge, the last of the ghosts. Revered by his community they gave him the space and peace he needed to work, reforming the scattered Roman temple stones to build him a great house high above them.
Marçà-Giné died five years ago and the village council decided to transform the space around the cobwebbed house from abandoned vineyard into a startlingly beautiful herb garden and sanctuary for the rare local tortoises. But the money ran out before work could begin within the walls.
Every time I have taken visitors to the “Garden of Scents”, to count newborn tortoises, breathe deeply and look out over the timeless sierra as all chapters of humanity have done, the house and its secrets have been sealed. Until this month.
We had ascended with two Norfolk friends, with good reason but little hope of getting beyond the gates because the garden is closed to the public in winter.
Teresa Verney, who runs Sing For Joy gatherings in orfolk (Norwich, Cromer, Sheringham and Binham), had come to plan with Maggie a Sing Away holiday tour at Mother’s Garden next April – sold out in a week, but we are making plans for more. The ledge seemed a perfect place for the guests to spend an hour in full voice, if Teresa agreed. The idea is to base the singing and socialising at the farm, with outings to beautiful places, with walks and feasts, laughter and beauty.
Jane Stevenson of Cromer-based Creature Comforters, the flower essence maker, was there too. She sings for joy with Teresa and also works with Maggie on essences, so came for two enriching reasons.
As we approached the gate our friend Pere the retired blacksmith and village historian with a timeless face and steady heart was just locking up after an hour of pottering. He pulled his pipe from his mouth, smiled like the sun and put the key back in the padlock.
We entered the great house from the side, climbing and crossing the flat roof of the pottery and kiln to emerge into the vast second floor, where all interior walls had been removed. Bunches of bone dry herbs were strung from beams. Cobwebs curtained windows and sewed a black wooded chair into a door frame.
A grand fireplace dominated the far end, and round the corner on the kitchen wall the sculptor had painted in great letters “I WILL NOT LET FAME ROB ME OF MY LIBERTY”.
Pere guided us down narrow stairs patterned with Marçà-Giné’s clay hand prints. We slowed, fanned fingers and pressed our palms into his. Below was the dusty ground floor leading to the cold kiln and redundant workshop with its line of empty shelves. To the back of the building a hole had been punched through into the now dry chapel chasm of the old water store. Teresa ducked and entered and it resonated with song as, from another corner, Pere turned holding an unopened wine bottle caked in time.
The house was not without the living. Four tortoises who had yet to hibernate were stocking up on lettuce leaves on the bare earth of an ante-room.
Back at the farm, Maggie, Teresa and Jane sat at the kitchen table and worked excitedly on the detail of the April singing holiday, agreeing that they would begin with a group of 15. I, meanwhile, lost in time, wandered outside and gazed up at Marçà-Giné’s ledge.
I will post again in a few days, with news of the olive harvest…………