Red in the morning, shepherds’ ….TAKE COVER! Clearly something dreadful is brewing. Yet again Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, has set the heavens alight.
Winter’s Catalan cocktail can always be relied upon to have a kick to it, with lashings of angostura, but as all seven billion of us know, the weather is going increasingly haywire.
From long before Christmas through to January 6, Dean Martin blared out of the village public address system. “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let it Snow!” I stood and listened next to the ludicrously early flowering pear tree, hat on to protect me from the beating sun, watching our happy host of sparrows hop through the burgeoning grass and boldly steal the chickens’ corn from under their beaks.
You don’t necessarily want to know this, but day after day – November, December and now into January – the peace, clarity and daytime warmth (circa 12 degrees) of the Priorat mountains continued to beguile like sirens. Is the mantic truth that this is the future? That between the rains in autumn and spring all will be serene?
No. The bite will surely come, late on and deep. Or the goaded planet will store its anger for another season.
Meanwhile we try not to worry about what is brewing. We try to appreciate the moment, these glorious days, the chance to hang winter washing on the line. After all, “Let It Snow” was written in Hollywood in July 1945, when I bet my bottom dollar flakes were few and far between.
Most evenings the black, random line of distant ink-black mountains is backed by the warm glow of sunset. But on January 5 it was an exceptional panorama, as the enchantment flared with celebration. From the far-flung clusters of lights marking the villages there rose fireworks – tiny, colourful flares above a beguiling community in miniature, heralding the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts for the Son of God and all the Catalan children.
There is one particular place, on the return journey from town, where this little world is laid out before me. I stopped the car and stared, waiting for another distant burst of happiness. I’d been on a fruitless shopping trip to town where most doors were locked, people were rushing to get ready and the main square was roped off with a 50 metre red carpet befitting the Oscars.
At New Year the children decided we should trek up the land in the dark, to turn off the torches and sit on the brow of the hill and listen to the distant village clock strike midnight. As we waited our eyes adjusted to the gloom and we wondered nervously what the plentiful wild boar were making of our unnatural presence in their nocturnal kingdom. None appeared and neither were there New Year explosions, just the tolling of the bell. Given the general tightening of belts, the villagers were obviously keeping their powder dry for January 5.
On the first day of the year we celebrated with a feast among friends at the always warm and welcoming home of Conchita and Mac.
So what will the new year hold? The fresh olive oil business bounds on – another website, run writer Judy Ridgway, has just posted our nut roast recipe – and the new year challenge is get the farm up and running, including pruning vines, as well as almond, fruit and olive trees.
Ella is working so very hard, juggling her five-languages baccalaureate (Spanish, Catalan, English, Greek, Latin, philosophy, geography, history, history of art and a thesis on fashion) while pulling together a portfolio to support art college applications. Regrettably an arts baccalaureate is not a sixth-form option in her small high school here in the mountains, so all her studies have been ex-curricular, something many arts-minded children may face in the UK if the mindless axing of arts education rolls on.
While I am on the subject, let me get this off my chest.
British art, music, theatre, film, books, radio and television are national treasures of invaluable worth that shine in the world and, for those in the corridors of power, bring vast returns to the Exchequer. Both Maggie and I despair that any Government should devalue this, or, indeed, deny that path of fulfilment to children. The planet needs far more arts, not less, for people to be more creative (and we don’t mean in the accounts departments of tax-dodging major corporations).
Meanwhile Joe is getting into his stride in his first year at high school, and growing an inch taller every week.
Ella and Joe will be 18 and 13 come June, an emotional thought deepened by the arrival of a gift, a large grass-weave basket, just like the one Joe slept in aged 4 weeks when we first came to Catalonia and saw Mother’s Garden.
Ella’s final exams will begin on her birthday, but she plans on celebrating in May when she and four friends and her brother will see One Direction in concert in Barcelona.
We will be there too, parked outside the Olympic basketball stadium in one enormous parental taxi rank, me nodding my head to the Rolling Stones on the car stereo, turning up the volume to drown out the screams while counting my blessings that somehow I managed to get the tickets.
How, heaven knows. I just kept frantically clicking the BUY button on the event website like a Wild West telegraph operator in a tumbleweed railway station who has a gun pointed at him by Clint Eastwood, until – Hallelujah – it worked. Life would not have been worth living had I failed.
As countless households all over the world know, bleakly or joyfully, One Direction concerts have been selling out in a blink, with online and shop vendors besieged by frantic teenagers and panicking parents. Now I notice some seats for the Barcelona gig are being offered for re-sale for a small fortune, as much as, well, tickets to see ageless (alright, he’s 69) living legend Mick Jagger strut his stuff while the indefinably cool guitarist Keith Richards sways precariously behind him. Heroes.
One Direction can’t be that good, surely?
Once upon a time, like many parents of older teenagers, I have been an expert on four colourful, fat friends with aerials on their heads and televisions in the tummies. Their incomprehensive but somehow catchy gibberish were then wallpapered over by the likes of “doggydoo” Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers greatest hits until I now find myself unwittingly humming 1D’s “Little Things” while walking the dogs. Not that I mind. Suffolk singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, who penned it, is class.
It is, give or take a sunrise or two, a dozen years since we rolled up here with our Norfolk bandwagon, chattels, dogs and dreams. We staked out this Latin soil as an outpost of the good county, promising to keep close and tell all; to share it.
Incredulity at the rush of time is answered by the grey-gilled man in the mirror, now 54 years of age. I have spent nearly a quarter of my life here and have tentatively begun the process of growing old. I need to accept that. Just beginning, I rush to add, but I – we – also need to recognise that the time has arrived to ease off the throttle; somehow.
Running the holiday cottage and, hence, having people on the farm for nine months of the year while also farming, writing and trying to grow the olive oil business is now too much.
So we are talking to villagers and friends to see who might like to share the land. There is talk of food cooperative members growing crops here. We want to focus more on the olive oil and the writing, so this may be our last season with the cottage. We shall see.
In truth, I don’t really know how old I am. My head says go for it until my body argues back two days later. Then I read in London Sunday supplements left by visitors and penned by deluded writers of roughly my age that where forty was once the new thirty, fifty is now the new forty. ER…no. Admit it.
PS: Cancel your flights. I wrote the above a few days ago. This morning it is tipping it down, blowing a gale and there is now on top of the mountain. Never take a god’s name in vain….
It is the month of green and red, of course, although our shades may be a little different: the bounty of delicious new harvest olive oil and the miracle that is the red winter fruit of the strawberry tree.
We have been rushing hither and thither, completing our annual Christmas shipment of fresh olive juice to our key customers, preparing the farm for winter, planning the year ahead as sales of our award-winning cooperative olive oil in the UK, Canada and America climb at an ever increasing rate.
The word is spreading.
Just get in touch.
It is so necessary too, though, to find moments to stand and stare.
I see things differently come December.
Mistletoe appears from nowhwere, like the robin, holly berry and rosehip, and a friend’s garden in the lee of a great mountain is decorated with that indefinable delicacy of arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree. It fruits a year after flowering.
And just yesterday – hallelujah – there was the flash of the kingfisher.
As the Iberian winter bites the tetchy cat has hijacked the little chair I salvaged from the rubbish tip. My plan was to perch on it while feeding the wood-burner, hence saving my creaking knees; but no.
So, just three days and counting….The Mayans ran out of chisels or stone when they got to December 21, 2012, and (as you are undoubtedly aware) the conclusion has been drawn that this signifies all of us have run out of time. KABOOOM.
I prefer to prescribe the ancient Greek definition of apocalypse – not a cataclysm but an unveiling, or revealing, in reference to a meaning of some kind previously hidden in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception.
Let’s hope so.
The sense of change is heightened, though, isn’t it? Maybe humanity is unsettled by the compacted burdens of so-called advancements that weigh so much and have forsaken so much, from braking the core of being, the atom, to robbing family and community and the individuals of priceless time.
Or do I sense a longing for change more here, in Catalonia, an angry “state” within sick Spain now far larger in the world conscience after linking arms with Scotland and striding towards independence?
Catalan president Artur Mas risks having a ragged Christmas, because a month after the election his Moses-like posters are still hanging from ever lamppost and the wind is getting up.
He called an early vote in the region to pump independence air into the tyres of his middle-to-right of the road bandwagon, but it backfired. He lost some ground if not his crown, while left-wing separatists found a new gear.
The majority of Catalans voted for one of the pro-independence parties, though, and it is such a single-minded place to be right now that there is a real chance of left and right forgetting their differences, forming a coalition and defying Madrid by calling a referendum.
The right-wing Spanish government of starch-rigid President Rajoy has declared any such vote unconstitutional, which has had people openly pondering on the likelihood of tanks rumbling through these villages.
I can’t see Europe letting it come to that, but why the clamour in the first place? The Catalans cite their ancient and unyielding claim of sovereignty, for reasons of language, culture and brutal history, and now even moderates have added their voices and votes, spurred by the economic mess.
Our village has already voted and declared it is not part of Spain.
Many Catalans think they would be better off going it alone because they pay far more in tax than they get back from Madrid, with this north east corner, the cornerstone of the “national” economy, constantly getting what they see as a raw and offensively dismissive deal from central government.
Certainly the mandate is clear enough for Artur and those seated at his round table, with nigh on a quarter of all Catalans flocking to a September rally to wave independence flags.
Fundamental issues of massive bureaucratic costs, EU membership, currency and the subsequent stability not only of a Catalan nation but what would be left of Spain form the meat course in this debate and we are just coming to it.
Spanish austerity was one of the topics discussed in my Norfolk home town of a couple of weeks ago.
A Spanish friend, a teacher, went to define to a gathering of anti-austerity UK residents the gravity of the situation here. She added her voice to a multi-party counter argument to the UK Government’s stringent economic policies.
How strange to see a photograph of a face from the heart of here standing in the high street of my youth.
For weeks now the day and night skies have been clear and calm, down to minus 5 beneath starlight. Every morning sunlight bounces from dew drops and jet specks in the sky.
On a 40-minute afternoon drive into the mountains to fetch Ella from a friend’s home the three griffon vultures circling overhead outnumbered the cars we passed along the winding lane of timeless charms.
The rains of late autumn have filled the reservoirs and brought our spring to life again. There is ample grazing for the horses. The chicken run has been reinforced and although a grey male goshawk has been sighted we have stopped the slaughter I recounted last month..
And as I walk the land and think of what the future may hold I reflect on how Adrian Bell felt on his Suffolk farm. How we appreciate him. I quote -
“I thought, today, how the family and one small farm fill our thoughts from waking to sleeping. Yet the farm occupies merely a moment of a traveller’s time. What a concentration of concern there is all over the lands and cities of this island, and what an anomalously impersonal thing ‘government’ is by contrast. It will be superseded, surely, by something more personal, an intensification of the personal concern, not a denaturing of ourselves from it, which is present politics. It should be as personal an affair as the old heraldic rule of kings was; but adult in conception, a fusion and a sharing, not egotism splendidly strutting.”
That was his hope in 1946.
What do I hope for everyone in 2013? An open-hearted, hopeful discussion on how to counter the sense of overload. Now is the time.
Have a wonderful Christmas. Peace in abundance. Ready smiles and steady hearts. Keep warm. Keep well.
Oh – and remember, whether you are in the United Kingdom or North America, you can get a taste of this life. We would love to hear from you.
Well, that’s done. A dangerous month, October; scary too.
The gilded gods awoke from summer slumbers in capricious temper, moving their furniture and throwing bolts between sunbeams. Walnuts rained down from the shaken trees and I popped some in my back pocket on damp dog walks, forgetting about them until I sat down.
Between torrents we took a nightfall stroll to the recently silent ravine and bone-dry swimming hole to hear the roar of the river and peer through the gloom at three delirious ducks. The summits of pink meringue storm clouds loomed once more from the east, the lightning flashed again and so we turned for home, hearing wild boar in the hazel shadows beside the puddled track.
I did the rounds of the animals, and in the quagmire of the chicken-run a rock had appeared. I skidded to avoid it and it lumbered away; a juggernaut toad.
Warmth and water – the first moisture since May – have transformed the parchment map of Iberia. Grass has grown several inches and the swelling olives weigh the boughs towards the sward a little more each day.
I have been flitting between farm and mill, my head clogged with the challenges or looming olive harvest, wine making and the battening down of hatches, but more so with family revelations from the past.
First, though, I promised last month to tell of our commitment to that vital creation, the “modern” cooperative and its inherent principle of pulling together and sharing, adopted in villages across these mountains a century ago where communities are now fighting to survive through the chaos of the pan-European recession. The village cooperative we belong to consists of about 40 families.
Cooperative is a word – an ethos, a way of life – rising rapidly in the public conscience even in the hot-house capitalist nations like my native United Kingdom, now the dusty, dated throne room of Thatcherism. Thank goodness.
Before this turns into an essay of angst about gross greed and excess, and the betrayal of core values not least the family, fundamental reasons for the current crisis both economic and social, I should look to the positive.
Cooperatives and the growth of social enterprises are showing they can help bring the vital reform of economics, globalization, and social justice. As John Restakis states in his book Humanizing The Economy – Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, the co-operatives form the most powerful grassroots movement in the world.
The cooperative is as vital here in the Priorat mountains, as anywhere in the world, historically so.
Curious, too, how it now swells with importance in Britain where there are housing initiatives and an increasing number of social enterprise endeavours, while on the high street The Cooperative, now a burgeoning bank too, grows in significance, alongside the largest employee-owned company in the UK, the John Lewis Partnership.
Maybe in this age of social re-evaluation the principals set out in 1844 by the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society will come to the fore a host of community ways, encapsulating as we have experienced here first hand a wonderful foundation for bringing people together.
I fear, though, that this UN International Year of Cooperatives, the championing of a society-saving idea, may have been lost amid the crush of bleak news. Did you know, for example, that there are more than 800 million members of cooperatives worldwide, providing more than 100 million jobs (20 per cent more than multinational “big” business)?
Asha-Rose Migiro, the Deputy Secretary-General, made the point. As the world witnesses growing public discontent as a result of the financial and economic crises, she made plain how the international community could learn from the cooperative movement, which balanced both economic viability and social responsibility, “offering a model for harnessing the energies and passions of all.”
“As self-help organisations, cooperatives are inherently people-centred. They not only meet material needs, but also the human need to participate proactively in improving one’s life.”
With the olive harvest just a few weeks away we are trying to tidy our lives. The great sunflower heads and crate-loads of nuts had been gathered and the wood store was half-filled before the deluge. In the farmhouse there has been a significant culinary development. Quico (Keeko) has finally left the building, replaced by Italian Guido.
For many a moon we have aspired to a new cooker. Maggie produced feasts on 45-year-old Quico, but both he and we knew his time was up. Getting him to light required me to kneel and beg with my head in the oven, the door to which (when he decided to play ball) never closed properly so had to be propped with something heavy. Now we are able to check our appearance in the reflection from the spotless stainless steel of a Smeg semi-industrial range. Blimey.
Notice I didn’t say Quico had gone completely. I was for a swift end, but compassionate Maggie thought he might be useful (the gas rings at least) for farm helpers residing in the old caravan, besides which he now stands. I am glad.
So to my abiding thoughts of East Anglia.
Beside me there is a box that we carried with us from Aldborough in Norfolk 12 years ago. Inside there is a small oil painting of a Suffolk glade with shepherds sitting on a log. I blew the dust off it to show two artists who were staying in our cottage and I have since been unearthing a little more of its story and, to my surprise, more of my family’s history.
But the fundamental mystery remains – who painted it?
It was gifted to my great-grandmother, Sarah Baker, in the 1880s when, as a young girl, she allowed an unknown artist to paint her portrait. She had been raised on a farm somewhere between Rushmere St Andrew and Woodbridge in Suffolk.
Sarah probably took it to London when she married a Devon shoemaker called Huxtable who ran a little shop in Peckham. They had a son and two daughters, but at the beginning of the twentieth century both father and son died of consumption in the same year, so Sarah and her daughters returned to Suffolk.
One of the daughters, Ellen, married a Tom Kirby in Woodbridge, where they settled and had a baby, my father. So what is the Norfolk connection?
Sarah had remarried and had another daughter. The marriage was, to put it bluntly, a disaster, so much so that my grandfather Tom deemed it necessary to give up everything and whisk his wife and newborn son, his mother-in-law and her daughter away in secret to distant Holt in north Norfolk, to start again, renting a council house, 4 The Fairstead, for £1 10s a fortnight.
There were further great ructions and estrangements that I will not bore you with, but in searching for any records about the painting I have unearthed from the bottom of one of the old leather cases of family records some faded postcards that have enabled me to chart the subsequent life of my great-grandmother Sarah and, possibly, the painting.
Her daughter from the failed married, Winnie, later ran the restaurant on Wymondham railway station. She and Sarah lived nearby, then moved to Norwich, and during the second world war and until Sarah’s death were at 60 Heigham Street, a stone’s throw from the first house I bought. Countless times had I sat in a traffic queue waiting for the Dereham Road lights to change, staring at that terrace, and I never knew. How much more do I still not know?
Next month – One of Ella and Joe’s teachers is to speak at a meeting in England.
What a Mother’s Garden month – scorpions, Royal yachts, hoopoes at the door, underwater wonder-world, and Alaska stories of a boyhood adventure that would grace a great novel.
The domes of the fig trees framed by our bedroom window and cast with the first blush of morning, stir in the stillness. Long-tailed tits, collared doves, sparrows and a raucous magpie feed on the fruit, while on the ground a bold pair of hoopoes strut about pecking at the debris.
These weeks of ripening teem with life and colour and more subtle hints of the seasonal cycle. The wheelbarrow handles are still too hot to touch if left out in the sun yet pony Petita’s winter coat is already half-grown. The soft nights persist and we continue to sleep with windows wide, but on daybreak-dog-walks Kirby diligently forages for logs, kindling and cones.
Stuart Dallas and James Proctor, now at Aberystwyth and Canterbury universities respectively, have been for their fourth summer sojourn on the farm, flailing axes at stubborn logs, chugging about on the tractor, stacking old bricks and catching up with all the news.
We gave them a day off and set off for the sea, to a secret cove, and the youngsters immediately went in search of sea cucumbers and other aquatic wonders. Stuart, with his mop of black hair like a young adventurer in an Enid Blyton novel, took underwater photographs of Ella and Joe in the deep blue, then we picnicked and talked of the Famous Five and W E Johns’ Biggles until ants invaded the food basket. I told them how in May we welcomed to the farm the grandson of the pilot on whom the Biggles’ character was based.
When we took our Norfolk helpers to the airport there was time for a detour, so I headed for the old docks of Tarragona on the off-chance of seeing a classic yacht or two. Goodness me. Nestling against the quay was Nahlin, the Clyde-built, 1930 blend of luxury (six guest staterooms with en-suite bathrooms, a special ladies’ sitting room, a gym and a library) and notoriety, now restored to the beauty of the days she sailed the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean with King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson aboard.
Just a month into his reign in 1936 the new monarch announced he was going to set sail for the summer on the Nahlin with Mrs Simpson – a voyage that abandoned protocol and on which Edward most certainly weighed the abandonment of the crown to marry his American mistress. That December he abdicated.
James and Stuart missed the scorpions, though. After 11 years without a sighting on the farm, two have appeared in a matter of days.
The first was seen crossing the lane on to our parched meadow. The second, dead as a Monty Python parrot, was floating in the spring water when I descended the shaft to check on the level. As far as I can tell it is a Buthus occitanus or common yellow scorpion. What next I wonder.
Now for tales stranger than fiction.
I told last month of Maria Soler Benages and Joan Barceló Castellvi who lived and farmed here for 40 years, and of the joy of gleaning seeds of the past. It is hard to believe what we have since learned of the man who built the end tower of this house, who blasted with dynamite to create the great water reservoir and who had a devoted pet pig called Chucha he’d fattened but couldn’t bear to slaughter.
He was, I fairly assumed, a village-born lad (correct) who had followed the typical rural path into agriculture, happy with the horizons of the sierras and with little knowledge of what lay beyond. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Before I tell you, can I say that the revelations, told to us by his grandson, have rekindled an aspiration. Both back home in Norfolk and equally here in this Latin backwater I harbour a hope. Maybe one or more of you share it and, somehow, a lasting and inspiring solution can be found.
Throughout life we encounter people but we rarely have the time to understand them or to appreciate their lives. Is it not so? The light in their eyes shines all the brighter in their frailty, in the Indian summer of reflections, yet frequently we don’t delve and all too soon they leave us. How I wish I had asked.
New generations surge, riding vast waves of technology that seem, with all the focus on communication, to curtail conversation, social contact, recognition and respect between young and old. The immediate and transient is drowning out enduring wisdoms and fascinations. Life journeys and the hearing of them have little value until it is too late.
Gentle, rosy-cheeked broad-Norfolk Reggie would wander into our former village garden and we would pass the time of day across the teapot. As we sat Geoffrey might shuffle determinedly past en route to the community centre, a man dedicated to public service and deemed a tad too officious because of it. They were anchored in that community and the simple assumptions of their character and accomplishments stemmed from what was obvious. They had lived rooted, rural lives and were notes in the vital rhythm of quiet Norfolk.
How humbling to hear, subsequently, of Reg’s time as the master builder entrusted with the care and endless upkeep of Norwich Cathedral, and of Geoffrey’s bravery and endurance as a Chindit, fighting behind Japanese lines in the unforgiving jungles of Burma.
My idea is simple. I call it The Life Chronicles, and it is something we can entrust to the young people across the United Kingdom and these valleys. For a small sum we can give young people in the last years of schooling, in those days and weeks after exams and before summer holidays, the guidance and the fulfilment of asking, listening to and recording life stories.
For example; one school, one camera, ten lives recorded annually, 15 minutes each; a digital almanac to be held by the library service; hundreds of lives each year, thousands in a decade; a simple, fascinating communication between generations; an invaluable record.
Back to Joan Barceló Castellvi. He was a fiery boy, by all accounts, and his conflict with the village teacher came to a head when he was nine, circa 1895. He ambushed the schoolmaster and pelted him with eggs.
His parents sent him to Barcelona to work in a bakery. He stuck to the task for a year and then vanished. Nothing was heard of him for 15 years. Joan had headed north on foot and, working here and there to earn scraps, he walked for two years until he reached Marseilles. He joined a ship and sailed the world, and within a few years was a seaman on the US Coast Guard Cutter The Rush, patrolling the Bering Sea off Alaska.
He visited his family here, told of his adventurers, brought them gifts, then returned to Barcelona, set on continuing his life in America. As we waited for the ship, he met and fell in love with Maria. The ship sailed without him.
So, how can we begin the English and Catalan – global even – life chronicles? Think on, where ever in the world you may be.
Oh – a thought. Do you know anyone who might be interested in my blog? Send them the link – http://mothersgarden.org/blog-2.
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.
June, like the continent of Europe, huffs and puffs, blowing buckets and bags like tumble weed across red earth patterned with the dancing shadows of fig leaves. Temperatures nudge towards 34 degrees Centigrade (93 in real money, if you deal in Fahrenheit like me, like the older Spaniards who still value things in Pesetas) and the dogs and frogs wake us up every night.
It is as if nature is shaking Spain and other economies, the UK included, from the daydream of blind excess, of living far beyond means.
The question often comes – how bad is it, living in (as the UK media paints it) such a desperate nation? Spain is, after all, the test tube of the moment in an explosive Europe.
I will tell you, from the perspective of our privileged remoteness.
You know, of course, that Mother’s Garden is in tiny, relatively closed, mountain county of one small town and 22 villages. So you will appreciate, too, that roots here are deep, like those of the vines, and there is a simple rhythm to all things, centred on family and the great outdoors, that resists the prods to race with the winds of innovation and accumulation. That is true of great swathes of this spacious nation, more than twice the size of the UK with only three quarters of the population.
With that caveat I say this: Despite the depression and the camps and protests in major cities, I truly sense the Catalans and the Spanish in general are living with a level of pain and dire long term economic prognosis that might tip the scales in other nations. There is deep anger. There is a movement for change – the youth-powered “los indignados” (the indignant) – that has yet to galvanise a critical mass but still might. But there isn’t a sense of widespread desperation that shortens fuses to a perilous degree. There isn’t within the scope of my radar that anxiety, even fear, about social fracture, that brittleness I feel sometimes in Britain.
That may come. In the bank there is a booklet of properties for sale – all repossessions. Fuel and electricity prices are climbing, education and health budgets have been slashed, and the unemployment rate among young people is now 50 per cent. As in every community across the continent, there is bafflement over the financial detail of the fiasco, but a shrewd idea of the root cause, and disillusionment with the career politicians and their Wallace and Gromit grins while they try to wallpaper over the word written large – GREED.
In the bread shop the baker smiles, as always, and lists to the assembled the vital things in life that do not have a price. It is the general philosophy here in the Latin mountains, where far greater hardships are within living memory and where the rock-bed of family is the foundation of all. The older generation has to a great extent resisted the pandemic of consumerism and they continue to bumble about in the old Renault 4s, between the wealth of their vegetable gardens, chicken nesting boxes and their simple homes.
For their children, with families of their own now, smarter cars, flat screen televisions and mortgages, the worries are there for sure, but they still live close to home and they have the security of community, finding invaluable comfort in it. The talk in the bar is not so much whether the Euro will survive – it has to – or how deep the austerity will be, but humour and the common conversations of friendship and family (and football).
Push the economic topic and they will shrug with resignation rather than revolution. The facts are as obvious here as anywhere. The obscene feasting at the top table of the world economy had blinded the gross bürgermeisters as to how far they could push consumerism and load many people in the “wealthier” nations with debt and, inevitably, gross stress and anxiety.
The comment has been made that while a few have lived like kings the majority have been made to feel like idiots.
Another friend, who is helping us replace the kilometre long phone line to the farmhouse, shouts with a wicked laugh from the top of a ladder that the Spanish are bandits who will never conform.
“We are different,” he says. “They have to remember that. We live our lives how we choose not how they tell us.”
His childhood puts the current so called crisis in perspective. In 1970, when he was 14, Fascist dictator Franco was still in power and the Catalan language had been banned and culture stamped on for more than three decades. The economy was feebly trying to find its feet. That year there was a knock on the door and his father, a critic of the regime, was taken away and never seen again. For years his mother went on a fruitless nationwide search for his body.
So while Rajoy, Merkel and others stumble about in the rising heat trying to save the Euro and their skins before going home to their well-watered gardens, the proletariat are hung out to dry. If it wasn’t so painful it could all the makings of a cheesy television drama. Maybe it will one day.
Someone we know in England has lost her job. She went home, locked the door and ploughed through several bars of chocolate while watching countless episodes of The Waltons.
Where is there comfort in witnessing an American family living through the Great Depression in the 1930s? You would be surprised.
We have just bought the first 50 episodes on two DVDs. The benefits are threefold. First, both Maggie and I happily remember being addicted as children to The Waltons when it first ran in the early 1970s. It was a Sunday evening treat in our separate households and millions of others no doubt. Second, it has triggered the same rhythm with our family now, with us all curling up together on the sofa to be transported to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Third, it may be syrup-ly sentimental, but there is something uplifting about the gentle glow of a strong family living simply and happily through meagre times rather than the incessant radiation from the modern furnace of materialism.
You probably know this already, but for the record the Waltons, about a couple with their seven barefoot children and the two glorious grandparents, ran for nine seasons – totally 221 episodes.
John Boy, the eldest child, tells of the challenges and traumas of that time, all overcome through the fortitude of unity, and there is much truth in it. The creator of The Waltons, writer Earl Hammer, drew from his upbringing in Virginia during those dark days, and it is his voice you hear in reflection at the end of each episode.
The worth is in the sentiment. Drawing water from the deep well of our elders who have known of worst times and know in equal measure how to live through them is what counts now. Here at least.
Let’s move on, up the track to the top of the farm to near the power line where the whistling bee eaters gather en masse as sunset; yes, bee eaters like the one that created a stir last month when it was spotted in Norfolk close to where I grew up.
The stone plopped with baritone depth. An echo of water-wealth barrelled up to our faces peering down into new opening to our spring. A life force has returned to Mother’s Garden.
We are not brimming with glee quite yet, but after weeks of hard labour and wonder at old wisdom we are flowing again, at the rate of about 500 litres an hour. When we have replaced the ages-old clay pipe that runs across the farm, part clogged with silt and roots, we expect this will rise to 1000 litres and the bill to nudge far beyond €5000. Ouch. But what choice? Water is life, and we have done enough, we hope, for the benefit to run through many generations.
In May I told of our hair-pulling anxiety after the spring ran dry, of a narrow shaft, tiny tunnel and blocked cave, of what looked like an insurmountable problem beneath this land. I went down there about ten times in total, on the last occasion curtailing a meeting in the cave when a very brave local expert was trying to explain to me how he would clear by hand the great mound of debris stemming the flow.
No way, I said, reversing out. The roof had collapsed once and could do so again. There was no option but to get a digger and excavate the whole area.
So we did, in dramatic style, with a JCB digger clawing away earth and rock, to a depth of 5 metres. First the cave appeared, then the tunnel. It dried my throat to see what little force it took to break the earth’s resistance.
My Dad, who died in March, knew well enough the value of water and would be content to know his legacy paid for the work. For two years he drove a water truck across the parched landscape of North Africa, being shelled and strafed as he searched alone for clean wells on his relentless mission to help quench an Army’s thirst. His part in Hitler’s downfall concerned the thing that some say future wars will be fought over.
There has been one disappointment, however. I said last month that at the back of the cave there appeared to be a man-made arch of rocks. No so. It was the edge of a great seam of sandstone patterned with surprisingly regular faults. There was no hoped for revelation. But what remains amazing is how, an age ago, someone had burrowed their way to the exact source of our spring.
Once the digger had done the heavy work we laboured with spades until water bubbled up from the ground beneath us. We were spot on. Our friend Antonio said we were most fortunate. How wise and kind our guide, the spirit of the tunneller.
The happiness is not ours alone. The well-watered vegetable garden shines with growth. In the old wash pool outside my office window the resident male Iberian green frog proclaims his contentment day and night. What a racket. There is at least one female in there too, but any tadpoles are going to find it tough given the appetite of any fish that survive the visits of the kingfisher. Oh the circle of life.
The frog, meanwhile, takes rides on the floating polystyrene seed tray, nudged along by one or two goldfish. Hand on heart, I have seen this several times now.
Must go – but two important oil footnotes. Sales of our fresh olive oil are climbing and we have just shipped another 500 litres to the UK, so if anyone would like some get in touch via our contact page. Second, our online shop has had a wobble which we are trying to fix. Sincere apologies to anyone frustrated by this.
Do you sense that walls are a store of echoes? Moments arrive and never really leave. Places seem to absorb the good and the grim and then hold them, emitting the essence of happenings.
I am acutely aware of this on entering an old building. Maybe you are too. Perhaps it is simply imaginings, but that first feeling rarely passes. The Mother’s Garden farmhouse enveloped us with welcome the first time we brushed aside cobwebs and opened the shutters to let in the light, and the happiness and goodness are still as warming and rich today as that first illumination.
Down the track, next to the wild flower meadow, people have carried laughter and contentment into our holiday cottage, and now there is song too. The abandoned water reservoir beside the pool, reconstituted with stout roof and glass doors as a dry space for good things, is flooded with tuneful voices forever more.
Fourteen people had come to Sing Away with teacher Teresa Verney, in a week jewelled with fulfilment and fellowship, swallowtail butterflies and glorious surprises.
Towards the end of last year I told of our and Teresa’s plans – inspired by our mutual friend the Jane Stevenson of Creature Comforters for whom Maggie makes some Bach flower remedies – to somehow combine Teresa’s great accomplishments with her Sing For Joy groups in Norfolk, England, with the happiness of here, and so it came to pass. Within days of the activity holiday idea being aired it was fully booked and our handwringing began. Would it work?
At the end of the seven days the assembled had gifted their echo and also sung spontaneously upon mountain tops, in a wine cellar, a church, a Syrian restaurant and in the former home and garden of a famous sculptor that’s now a sanctuary for the rare Mediterranean tortoise. Proof positive of the joy that can come of finding your voice, sharing, learning, eating, talking, drinking and laughing long and loud: Add to that taking long works, bird watching, standing and staring and scenting your hands by running them through herbs.
As for those glorious surprises, well, what can I say? Jim and Sarah Woodhouse, who live within the scent of the North Sea close to where I free-ranged as a child, are close friends of my godfather John Bell, the link being Lancing College, West Sussex, where Jim was headmaster and John was a master for 32 years. John had lodged with my parents at the start of his teaching career at 53 years ago. Then we discovered that Sarah is the founder of a charity we wholeheartedly endorse – it is called Right From The Start – which is committed to underlining the need for a loving and secure environment for children at the earliest stages of their lives and so create a similar core benefit within families and communities. How fundamental is that? Please have a look at the Right From The Start website.
I was just absorbing all of that when it emerged in coffee-break conversation that violinist Sarah Chadwick, who both sang and played at Mother’s Garden, is connected to two people I have the highest regard for.
Sarah is the niece of the late Roy Clark, author of the definitive Black Sailed Traders (1961) and one of the small group of leading local figures including Lady Mayhew and Humphrey Boardman who worked tirelessly to the save Albion and hence keep the story of the Broadland wherries alive. I wrote a small book about Albion in 1998 for the Norfolk Wherry Trust and the first words within it are, fittingly, not my own but Roy’s.
I talked to Sarah of my appreciation of him, and how his work was among the inspirations for my novel Count The Petals Of The Moon Daisy. I explained that the book is about a violinist and that another touchstone for it had been the pastoral music of English composer Herbert Howells. Oh, she said. She had studied at the Royal College of Music and knew him. This is when I had to sit down. How I wish I had met him. He died in 1983 leaving a legacy of glorious works. When we make the film of Moon Daisy – yes, we are getting closer – the entire score will be drawn from his compositions.
So you see, I found the voices all the more enchanting, in song and word.
The singers went home and I wandered in the company of a nightingale. Diversity and pace; perhaps these are the keys to logging experiences, so long as we stand and just be once in a while to properly gauge circumstance and detail, to register our place in time and to remind ourselves to use that time better; to acknowledge the obvious that, somehow, some days, we do not see; to break our gaze from the mollifying collectives of some surreal diversions headed by the dire and (I pessimistically believe) encouraged anxieties of image, possession, economics and, ironically, time.
I am sometimes blown over by the rush of the human race, with people all but busting blood vessels to keep up with whatever they will dream up next to keep everyone paying. Is life truly satisfying when it amounts to a line of expensive and “awesome” funfair rides where you sweat to buy the ticket then just sit like a plum pudding?
Sorry. I just think everyone craves less of more, with time to live and give.
Now for news of a tight squeeze. What is adventure without a little terror?
I’m in a hole….well I was a few hours ago; more than four metres down an ancient chest-wide shaft cut into the red rock, to be precise, trying to fathom out why our spring has stopped.
I already knew from a “never again!” descent a couple of years back – remember? – that at the bottom of the shaft a tunnel barely big enough for a toddler had been painstakingly chiselled into the hillside. So I crouched, took an enormous breath, muttered a few foul oaths and paddled along it.
Five metres from the shaft there had been a great collapse. A pile of rocks and mud was blocking not only my way forward but also the flow of spring water. Roots dangled from the dark void above, and my feeble torch could just pick out a great space beyond the fall.
I backed out at a rate of knots and climbed into the sunshine to tell a visiting friend how scary it was. He immediately volunteered to go down with a camera. Mad as a box of frogs. Sure enough, the photographs showed what looked like a man-made stone arch beyond the rock fall. Who? How? When?
The dilemma is what we can do without disturbing what could be an important site. We figure there can only be about three metres of rock and earth above the cavern, making it highly dangerous to drive a tractor or even walk above there. And, as I said, the water to our bassa (water store) has ceased. Doing nothing is definitely not an option.
So I have just taken expert advice and within the next few days we expect to be carefully clearing above the rock fall, opening and unblocking the spring and taking a clearer, safer look at the arch and what lays beyond it.
Close to that point we have a most unusual terrace wall just before the summit of the farm, comprising of right angle lumps of rock bearing the remnants of lime render, as if they had been taken from a ruin. You know what I am thinking…….
This fertile valley has been peopled since Palaeolithic times, and the evidence is scattered everywhere. To site a dwelling on this gentle rise, close to water, would have been an obvious choice. Oh for the gift of time travel.
Just a few days before I descended into the blackness I and the family climbed the valley wall into the light to look over the timeless pattern of life.
We passed a pink man in a white vest and weathered jeans carved the loamy red earth with a mattock. His narrow terrace and the rhythm of his labour snaked towards us between the babble of the river and the silence of the forest. We were rising into the peace.
After downpours, double rainbows and thunderbolts the clear air overflowed with colour and life. We slowly zigzagged up the face of the limestone ridge, absorbed by the dappled-shade-delicacy of the moss and the fern amid the host of nature and its perfume, contentedly lost for words, lost in time. With late shoots of wild asparagus sprouting from our fists we walked along the top of the ridge as man and woman have always done, until we found a suitable ledge on which to contemplate and picnic. Bliss.
I will relay news of the spring works next month with tales of Nartists in residence too, but meanwhile leave you with another treat, for entomologists and all lovers of wonder.
As you stand in the horse corral, dusty as the High Chaparral, four to five staggeringly large hymenopterans fly figure eights around your ankles. They are 4cm long scolia flavifrons, black with two yellow bands, known to some as mammoth wasps. Nectar gathers who are as large as the carpenter bees that are working the wisteria outside the back door right now, and seemingly just as unaggressive, they are parasites of the rhinoceros beetle which perhaps explains their unceasing dance close to the horses.
Since Spook the Anglo-Arab steed arrived we have the best roses in the valley and have been able to gift sacks of hhuu, as my mum would call it, to neighbours. The juggernaut beetles have been lured by the dung fragrance too, so the circle of life spins on.
PS: I now write a small weekly blog for the small business blog http://sme-blog.com/ should our fiscal trials, tribulations and the merry dance of earning a living at Mother’s Garden be of interest. Anyone who is doing their own thing or is thinking about it might find the site helpful.
Squalls and sunshine; legions of broken clouds shunted westward by a pepper wind; double rainbows two days on the trot; a myriad of wild blooms reigned over by the poppies; the intoxicating beauty of Mother’s Garden as, brimming, I stare at one of life’s great milestones.
Am I really so old?
During the long month of April I have stood and sat in places – not Catalan but English places – that flood memories of childhood with the clarity of Holt Hills’ spring water, specifically my seventh year. Some formative things you never forget: These are mine.
Dad died on March 18. On April 5 we carried him into St Andrew’s Church, Holt, in the far East of England, in the green folds of north Norfolk, filling that crowded space with music and an ounce of mischief, just as he had done as a 12-year-old in 1932, straining to reach the pedals of the organ.
Earle Kirby was 91: A man of music and smiles, a composer of courtesy and comical raspberries, of immovable opinion and unerring loyalty to family and friends as strong as his allegiance to the bright side. “I won’t be beaten, boy,” he would say with a beautiful Norfolk lilt, and he never was.
He had been a one sock up, one sock down child, a free bird of those Spout Hills, devoted to his mum and dad, Tom and Ellen, of The Fairstead on the Cley Road, a boy and man wedded forever to his town. He had raced through its alleys and along its streets on his cycle with neither tyres nor seat, scrapped with other cubs under the long-gone water tower on Shirehall Plain, and he had marched home down the High Street after five years at war in North Africa and Italy.
A few days before his funeral I went home. I drove through dappled shade along the much diminished road where I had puddle-jumped in red wellies, been towed on a sledge behind a car and had considered in all security that the whole world was houses nestling in woods that ran to heath and endless sea.
I stood between gateposts, took a deep breath and knocked on the door of the house which Dad had designed and which I left when I was six. I sat again on the very same stair where I had said to myself, arms wrapped around my knees, “This is 1965 and I will never forget it”.
Within days of that moment my family was irrevocably broken. My equally dear mother took me and my sister to live in the neighbouring town of Sheringham, four miles away. In the dark corners of confusion and discord only one thing was clear to me. Dad was left behind.
In adulthood, long after the consecutive 500 Saturday afternoons and evenings we spent together after the separation – when every second counted and an unbreakable bond was gilded – came just one solitary mention of his then desperate struggle with suicidal thoughts.
But he would not be beaten. No.
That house in High Kelling, like the road, had shrunk, but I could remember every inch of it. Echoes bounced off the walls. How, when now I can barely recall what I did last week?
From there slowly on in to town, gliding past the seam of trees through which my mum would push me in a pram along a path long lost to undergrowth. Left into Grove Lane, hearing somewhere the whining gearbox of the old pale-green Ford Anglia Dad called Lilly, choosing at the last second not to stop at his bungalow home of 44 years but to press on past the flint wall of the old workhouse, to park and walk to the Hills.
There is another great sweep of flint wall there too, high and mighty on the bank above the spring pool, rising steadily from its beginnings at the entrance to Hill House beside Holt Methodist Church at the zenith of Letheringsett Hill. That towering curve of stone and brick would hold my impressionable eye every time we walked the vale, the greatest unexplained thing I had ever seen, filling me with wonder and foreboding as what could possibly lay beyond.
All scale is lost with years, but not feelings.
Fat oaks now stand where once we would scream down on sledges, sometimes into the brook that is full of reflections.
I never knew Tom and Ellen. They were gone before I was a year old and are buried in the cemetery on the Cley Road, just on from The Fairstead. I pointlessly sought shelter from rain under a hawthorn, then, protecting my gift of daffodils, dipped my shoulder and pressed on towards them, up the path the way Dad would run home from school, to stall at the back of the garden I have no memory of but now know so well. Water on my face I pulled photographs from my mind, all found in a box in the bottom of Dad’s wardrobe; My Nan in her deckchair by that door, a tray of tea on the grass, Dad holding his new cycle, Grand-dad beside the chicken coop. For whatever reason, perhaps unmanageable loss, Dad had never taken me there, never retraced those steps. I stood and tried to piece this part of me together. Maybe nothing ends if we remember.
I didn’t intend this blog to be so raw, but that is how life has been, and that does not mean bleak. It is the common crossroad, in my family’s case with the greatest blessing of a very long, fruitful life. There has been sun as well as rain (not least the phenomenal care of everyone at Sun Court Nursing Home in Sheringham), and just before Dad was laid to rest with my step-mother Eve it was so good to honour in my rambling epitaph his heart, humour and that refusal to be beaten. I even blew a raspberry.
When tests finally proved that this one-time Norwich cinema organist, Royal Artillery veteran, car paint specialist, music teacher, co-founder of the North Norfolk Aeromodellers and member of the Last of the Holt Summer Wine was unable to see where he was going and the DVLA took his beloved driving licence away there were no complaints.
His solution was an electric cycle that would do a hair-raising 25mph. I couldn’t watch and I certainly couldn’t argue. And when after an alarming couple of years the rapid onset of glaucoma meant even he decided it was all getting a bit risky for the good people of Holt there was a plan C.
“I’m goin’ into production, boy.”
“What do you mean Dad?”
“I’m goin’ to make bird tables.”
“I’ve bought a tabletop saw. Now stop your worryin’. I’ve thought it all out. I’ll do it by feel.”
He died of old age, by the way, with all his fingers attached.
FOOTNOTE: My apologies for the late arrival of this post but, perhaps, the reason is obvious. Watch this space for news of a different nature in the coming week. Best wishes to all, and thank you for reading. Martin.
Ah, the ethereal contentment of loose leaf tea and fine literature.
Since November 10 we have spent an hour every Sunday morning wandering the fields and lanes of 1930s north Suffolk, England, in the irresistible company of Adrian Bell; living with him, lost in the colours and truths reflected in his eyes, walking in his measured stride so as not to miss a detail.
My selfish gift to Maggie on her birthday was the trilogy of Corduroy, Silver Ley and The Cherry Tree penned by the columnist – nuggets of English pastoral writing and as treasured on this farm as much as the volumes of Lilias Rider Haggard, Ted Ellis and William Dutt. (Google them).
A dawn dressing-gown-and-wellies excursion to the chickens and horses while the tea brews, a minute nursing the wood-burner before back into bed to read to one another on the one morning when we try to cease worrying about the common, endless demands on time.
How good to read again Bell’s thoughts on what fulfils; how a pony and trap can hasten the real world into our conscience far swifter than a car ever will; how the morning rhythms of lamp and fire lighting ignite the spirit to face the day.
And coincidences fly up from the pages. Bell writes of Lapwings, now endangered but of which great clouds fill my childhood memories, wavering like blow leaves above the rolling fields of the north Norfolk coast within the salt scent of the North Sea. We read, we remember, and within days we spy four Lapwings on a hay field just a mile from Mother’s Garden, our first sighting during our eleven years here.
For there is, happily, some harmony between that life and this, where at arm’s-length from nauseating commercialism we are gifted immeasurable, timeless wonders to ponder and learn from, in tandem with the pains and rewards of bending the back to touch life and work the land.
We are one chapter from the end of The Cherry Tree, an aching thought, but I have asked a friend at BBC Radio Four to help us track down a recording of Martin Bell’s programme about his father, broadcast about five years ago. Did you hear it? And to steady our pace throughout the year we will next read Apple Acre (1942), Sunrise to Sunset (1944) and The Budding Morrow (1946), with the store of Bell’s later books to draw on after that.
The Swallows will race by from Africa any day now, for the birding has begun, fanned by the unseasonably warm, dreamy air. Wildfires are flaring across this parched peninsular (in March, for goodness sake) and we must balance this fear with the beauty and the awakening. The return of feathered melodies that faded away in October; the shocking exultation of a murmuration of Spotless Starlings spooked from the meadow; a Mistle Thrush on a pruned vine; a Sparrowhawk dining at the foot of an olive tree while a Short-Toed Eagle circles; the star bursts of almond blossom; the contentment of our horse and pony who have an acre of woodland and vineyard to graze.
Better still, our Kingfisher obligingly hangs around my office window; two Great Spotted Cuckoos condescend to be admired, drawn, it seemed, by the sound of paint being scraped from old shutters; and a pair of Sardinian Warblers flit between their nest in the choicia shrub beside the barbecue and a our vast fig tree where they hop about, hunting for bugs.
Then, when you think all is done that day comes the glory of the crystal night where Venus dances with Jupiter in the west, and easterly Mars makes us curious.
For half way there is “Curiosity”, the largest and most advanced rover we Earthlings have ever sent to explore another world, whistling along at six miles a second and due to land on our neighbouring red planet in August. Is this really a precursor to a one-way manned mission to the red planet within the next 20 years? Any volunteers?
While living the day we look back as well as forward.
Needing to recharge, and with nephew Yan agreeing to take up the reins, we wandered off to the coast for two nights, just an hour away, to savour the loneliness of sands that in summer pulse with near naked humanity, and to take an ages-old step into the past.
At the northern end of the smile that is Altafulla’s bay, just down an anonymous, short, walled path guarded by a squat palm tree, are the remains of a great Roman villa, Els Munts, one of the most important in all of Spain because of its size and the opulence of its decorations, including vast mosaics, gardens and two thermal baths.
It was a dwelling for six centuries, summed up in one lump of stone. At the end of a well-preserved mosaic walkway you can see where stairs once rose to the long-gone second floor. The first step, a foot high when laid, sags in the middle, half worn away by the footfall of residents, guests, servants and slaves.
How to get a handle on history, to measure it, sense it? Is it in a pupil’s conscience merely the length of a lesson, or as long as it takes to memorise a date? We sprint out of the school gate and that uniformed world into the heady immediacy of life, fuelled in a twentysomething chapter of immortality by the sense of it being our time. Now, as I wander happily downhill at Adrian Bell’s pace, I ponder what I have missed and I lament my weakening eyes. I am hungry to stare.
The low terrace of old white cottages built on the shoreline by long-gone fishing families is a charming front to some typically bland Spanish urban architecture. The crush of summer veils the truth, that on so much of this coast the magic has been swamped by so much mediocrity, laid bare by the cold honesty of winter. And this planning disharmony seems to drown some people’s sense of respect for the environment, with our rocky headland walk and imaginings of ancient beginnings strewn with the debris of idiots who couldn’t give a damn.
Whether it is here, Hinkley, Helsinki, Hownslow or Hull, can we collectively agree to stand tall and challenge anyone who couldn’t give a damn?
We walked on, jaws locked, to a tiny bay where Romans had carved rectangular blocks out of the rock and where, now, beards of grass-green seaweed ebb and flow. Again we left the present and ran our fingers across the past.
Let’s change the subject.
Anyone who lived through it should remember that ferocious UK gale in 1987 that flattened forests, stirred up a rainstorm of roof tiles and put the fear of God into everyone, and yet for all the mayhem is best remembered because of a BBC weather forecaster’s reassurances.
Just before the mayhem he had assured the nation, in response to a woman who’d phoned asking if a hurricane was on the way, that it wasn’t, and that Spain would get it instead. The storm veered north, 3 million homes were damaged, 15 million trees were uprooted and 19 people died.
Among the shocking images was one of a block of five garages – those little lines of adjoining, flat-topped buildings where the British keep their beloved cars….or not. A gust had torn the roof off in one lump and from the helicopter circling the devastation a photographer had gifted the world a spy satellite view of the contents.
Yes, you are right – there wasn’t a car in any of them. One was spotlessly clean and as empty as a politician’s promises. The other four, however, were stacked to the absent ceiling with things that “might come in handy one day”.
The relevance of all this is our 200-year-old farm Catalan barn; large as a house, and (you guess correctly once again) full of “stuff”. Or rather it was, because we have finally taken to the recycling centre a ludicrous number of glass jars, plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, vinegar, children’s broken toys, perforated irrigation piping and an ancient sack of bread flower (lost and forgotten beneath the pile) that had turned to stone.
The vinegar had been lined up in a collection of dusty containers between the snow tyres and the yellow anti-freeze for the solar hot water system ever since our first winemaking attempt had gone horribly wrong. Delusional, we had wondered if it might improve with age.
Three hours, two rats’ nests and a dust storm into the task, Yan waved a carrier bag of something in the air.”Ay, Ay!” he said, looking inside again, his eyebrows completing the circle of his grin. “Beaten Rasquera to it have you?”
For those of you who haven’t had a whiff of this story that made the UK newspapers, the village where we buy our Christmas turkey is making plans to plant out 12 acres of cannabis to beat the economic crisis.
In our case the bag in question contained dried oregano if you must know, wedged underneath a couple of broken – but repairable – beach chairs. We do not grow pot.
The mayor of Rasquera’s plan is to free the 900-strong community of a whopping €1.3million debt by cultivating marijuana for a personal use cannabis association who will pay €54,170 a month: Heady stuff, in my case for two reasons.
Are small Spanish towns and villages really sliding into that degree of debt? Blimey. And what exactly is the legal situation for such a radical project because it’s seems to be without precedent? I sense a storm brewing….
Mind you, just be grateful they haven’t shortlisted your neck of the woods for the $22.3 billion EuroVegas resort – a Vegas-like strip of 12 hotels, dozens of restaurants, a convention centre, three golf courses, a stadium and six casinos, modelled, unnaturally on the neon outcrop in the Nevada desert.
Spain has been chosen because of the climate and (maybe, no probably) the recession, in that the American creators are said to be looking for hefty concessions from a national government that is sufficiently desperate for jobs and investment.
It seems both Barcelona and Madrid are the finalists. For once I want Madrid to win.
The cold has bitten deep in January, but December was deliciously mild and the memory warms us. On Boxing Day, unable to amble beside the whispering pines and stout marram grass on Norfolk’s Holkham beach (Christmas always spells distance for us) we took off for a neighbouring village in these hauntingly beautiful Catalan mountains, following an ancient way that snaked through forest and ravine. In 11 years it was our first time.
Once past some pens of howling hunting dogs we dropped down into a dry river bed, clambered out the far side into a Paleolithic world, looped high through the silence of the trees and herbs, then sat and weighed the timeless solitude. Above, mistletoe ballooned from boughs: beneath us a bone-dry 20ft-wide cleft of rock told of the storm waters that had patterned eternity. Everyone knows that relentless water is undefeatable, yet, a few hundred metres on, a ridge still resisted, forcing the river to twist 90 degrees to the right, creating an amphitheatre curve of spell-binding magnificence and history. High in the bare wall of lime and red stone one gaping hole brimmed with the twigs of a raptor’s eerie. In the base, in grey rock that perhaps was once mud, we found a curious pattern of dark egg shapes with white centres like embryos. There was only a sprinkling of them.
Could they be fossils? The more you grow older the more you realise how much you need to know: Please enlighten if you have any knowledge.There was no one to ask at the time. In five kilometres we did not meet a soul, while above jet trails drew incongruously straight lines across the artwork of the heavens, like the Roman arrow roads that were once carved across the continent.
Back home we spent time on the vegetable patch, replacing the collapsing cane fencing erected two years ago by a Nepalese friend, also pulling out our exhausted tomato and courgette plants and nursing the winter cabbages, garlic and lettuces. Maggie created feasts from festival leftovers and, having watched the film Julie and Julia, we amused ourselves with the truth that she is steadily working her way through the glorious volumes of Delia. With a twist, of course, for all of Maggie’s meals are a variation on a theme, and I have lost count of the time we have chorused that she must write down exactly how it all came to pass, only for the moment and the creator’s memory to fade. That said, there is a rumour going around the kitchen table that she has written down … somewhere … her post-Christmas turkey and leek quiche recipe - or was it the chicken with lime and coriander wonder? – and it is my ambition to post it on our website in the coming days.
One tranquil Sunday, January 8, the day before the bugle call of the school run rang out again, we rolled down to the coast to lounge on a bench and stare at the blue while the sun, scent and faintest of winter airs lied that it was March. Cafes and restaurants bulged with locals while a smattering of foreigners, include some South Americans whose Spanish accents were as distinct as a Geordie in Dallas, shared the warmth.
Do you remember how I signed off the last letter home? Joe and I were Barcelona-bound to meet a warrior, but on encountering softly-spoken, self-effacing Joel Stewart you would not, with all respect, deem him so. He was one step away from the crowd, and was stunned when I recognised him and thanked him.
But first this. In native American legend a boy asks his grandmother, who was called Eyes of Fire, why such terrible things have happened to their people. She answers: “There will come a time when the earth grows sick, and when it does a tribe will gather from all the cultures of the world who believe in deeds and not words. They will work to heal it… they will be known as the ‘Warriors of the Rainbow’.”
We are long-standing family members of Greenpeace. I could fill this newspaper with reasons why. The new Rainbow Warrior III ship, paint barely dry, is hope; a mere 855 tonnes of green and white belief that enough people care enough to say ENOUGH. Paid for by the 3 million members, she came to Barcelona after carrying her message up the Thames to London.
We queued with hundreds of others for the chance to stand at the bow and on the bridge. We looked up at the sail rigging and were overwhelmed by the realisation of what a technological and psychological leap forward she is for the principle of direct peaceful action to stop the relentless, unforgiveable rape of our world, 70 per cent of which is covered in water: doing for the environment what the civil rights movement did for the dispossessed.
She embodies a rapidly growing awareness of – and resistance to – the insane pursuit of short-term profits regardless of the bleakest consequences for the planet. I - we – desperately need champions like Greenpeace., and Greenpeace needs us. So check out www.greenpeace.org and follow Rainbow Warrior’s vital odyssey.
Joel Stewart? He is the skipper.