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.
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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.
What does it really mean to live in clover – a care-free life of ease, comfort and financial prosperity? These elude us – ha! – although we are happily knee-deep in the emblem of the distant Emerald Isle.
Life is bursting forth in all directions and I burst into song (see other recent out of tune blog). Well, it is always the greatest lift to walk away from the deafening, numbing, cold waterfall of world events and into the shamrock.
As I write the strimmer interrupts the wild birds, frogs and cockerels. Helper Andy, from Cornwall, is steaming through the lower vineyard and I sit here at my chaotic desk and gaze out at it in all its new leaf Easter glory.
Slowly but discernibly the round-shouldered mint plant in the pot outside my office window is responding to the water I have just given it. The fish are rising in the old washing pool and Joe is kicking his Barcelona football about beneath the buzzing wisteria.
Behind the house Maggie and Andy’s partner Tamsin have planted a great swathe with spuds, and another patch has been cleaned and fed with compost and pony muck in readiness for an assortment of other vegetables, while every dawn smoke rises as the never-ending battle with the brambles rolls on.
Andy and Tamsin, who were mentioned in dispatches in February, have returned for another dollop of life on the farm and it is good to have them around.
I must away up the land on the tractor this afternoon to cut the verdant strips between the top vines, before we begin the great task of pruning the 80 olive trees. No doubt we will be outside watering the garden until night closes in.
Behind me, just inside the back door, our coats hang beneath the crowded shelf of teetering hats that so well define this life. We have an endless list of farming, literary, olive oil, holiday cottage, domestic and accountancy tasks that regularly outpace us, not to mention the constant distractions: Like the apparent demise of our washing machine (bang goes another 600 Euros) planning to export olive oil to the land of Maggie’s birth, Canada (gulp), the demise of the currency exchange company that was holding a large lump of our money (double gulp), and the arrival of Lucky the chicken.
I say “apparent demise” of Daphne our Daewoo washing mashing because – ahem – I took her apart, put her back together again and she worked. Total fluke, of course, but we were desperate not to lose her. After 10 years of coping not only with our needs but the holiday cottage washing too, Daphne has every right to throw out the towel. But she is a great rarity – a dual feed washing machine, and a large capacity one at that.
Anyone with me on this? While solar water heating has become popular it seems washing machines with a hot water feed have all but disappeared. I just don’t get it.
On the financial front we are sending, free of charge, a bottle of olive oil to a chemist in London. When the London currency trading company that has for the past four years converted Sterling into Euros for us suddenly stopped answering the telephone or my increasingly frantic emails I went pale. We needed the hard-earned funds in our Spanish bank account to pay our mortgage. What to do?
After days of getting nowhere down official channels I put on my frayed journalist’s hat, Google-Earthed and street-viewed the company’s offices, saw there was a chemist’s shop next door, rang him and begging him to go round and bang on the door for me, which he did, bless him.
“It is a somewhat unusual request,” I said.
“No it isn’t,” he replied. “You’re the third person to ask me.”
That told me there must have been thousands of desperate Brits abroad in the same boat, or at least a handful of dog-with-a-bone ex-journalists scattered around the globe.
I am much relieved to report that the money was recovered, but the salient point remains for all would-be ex-pats – you are going to have to become international money traders with one eye forever on the currently woeful exchange rate while the other eye scans for the best/safest deal. I hadn’t counted on looking at the BBC business pages every day of my Mediterranean existence, but I do.
Me and Nell, our 46 year old Massey Ferguson tractor, have just been rocking and rolling through the undergrowth in old almond grove.
The long-established fennel and other assorted wild plants that colonise everywhere the moment our back is turned (it’s a year since I cleared those terraces) cloaked the furrows and pits dug by wild boar. The cutter on the back of the tractor threw the sandy earth in all directions, but we got through.
We are late with the harvest, but all is almost clear for the gathering of what almonds the dying grove can offer. We will strim close to the trees now, set the nuts out to dry, then bag them next week, when thoughts will turn to bottling the 450 litres of wine in the barn. That must be done so we can clear the area and clean equipment in readiness for the grape harvest at the end of September. It is a dizzy time of the year, always.
So, back and forth I trundled this morning, heavy with a cold but still able to scent the cut fennel. There is a lot to think about. The proofing of my next book is almost done, yet I am still finding things wrong. Shaking The Tree is due to be published on December 1, with book signings being planned for Oxfordshire, Norfolk, Yorkshire and possibly north London. I worry that it will be as well received as No Going Back – Journey to Mother’s Garden, which has sold nearly 32,000 copies now.
And there is something else to worry about. Screen East, a key funder of the Moon Daisy feature film project, based on my last book Count The Petals Of The Moon Daisy, has gone into receivership. I will write again soon about the challenges of getting a film made, but in the meantime, if anyone has a spare million in the bank and wants to be part of a project about English American history and the joyful truth of rural England, specifically the Norfolk Broads, then get in touch.
I’ll tell you something, though. There is nothing quite like an hour with Nell on the high terraces on a crisp September morning to clear the head and settle the heart.
The main courgette flourish is long gone, giving rise at its fridge and freezer-filling height to vast quantities of chilled courgette soup, potato and courgette omelette and ratatouille. They are still coming, though, encouraged by our wine barrel water butt.
Finally the tomatoes are relenting. The beef ones weighed in at a pound apiece, and no sooner had we worked out what to do with a basket full then it was time to harvest more. But boy were they tasty.
There are still almost daily handfuls of cherry tomatoes and peppers, for salads or to roast with other vegetables from the garden, such as aubergine, garlic and onion and, of course, courgette, with fresh basil and lashings of Mother’s Garden extra virgin olive oil.
I am typing at the kitchen table and Maggie, Ella and Joe are at the other end, having a breather from the vegetables by coring and chopping apples to make the utterly circumknockerating family apple chutney recipe as passed down by mother Beryl (of Mattishall), who has just broken off from making tomato chutney at her farmhouse table to give us a call. See recipe page.
It has been helpful that holiday cottage visitors have been tucking in to baskets full of our vegetables, and in exchange we have a few euros and more recipes, such as Jonathan of West Sussex’s roast tomato pasta sauce. I will post this tomorrow (if I can lay my hands on it.)
As for the spuds, the only varieties available this year were kennebec and red pontiac. Were that we had more choice of seed potatoes hereabouts, but the crop (four brimming wheelbarrows) was satisfactory, with several box loads stored for the winter. We ploughed through the damaged ones, cutting up anything edible and making patatas a lo pobre, described in our essential Moro Cookbook as the delicious combination of large Spanish onions, garlic and long green peppers, and a large quantity of potato wedges, tossed together, seasoned and slowly cooked in olive oil.
In the middle of this time of plenty we wandered out into the summer heat to pick elderberries for Maggie’s apple and elderberry syrup and jelly, with an heirloom shepherd’s crook to encourage the branches to bow within reach. Then we swung by the lower terrace to see how the pears were coming along, only to find them ripe, and to discover the artwork of a nest that had been weaved from dried iris leaves. Can any birders among you advise which bird may have created this? Blackbird perhaps?
Such an overwhelming time of plenty, when entwined with a resolution to waste nothing, can, if you are not too careful, water the notion that you can have too much of a good thing.
Thank goodness for bird nest moments to break our pace.
When, blue bright day after relentless blue bright day, we are beaten by the heat, it hurts.
Midday to 5pm temperatures have topped 34 degrees for weeks, and tasks like jam and juice-making have overtaken us. It is enough to keep up with the watering.
A cauldron of plum that was put aside for a short while, rapidly began to ferment, so had to be poured on to the compost, home of happy mice that now must be even merrier.
The only creatures seemingly unfazed by our oven existence are the birds, reptiles and the insects. Our placid bees continue to rotate between the spring, the sunflowers and hive (there is a pollen-coated bee in this picture, somewhere), while dragons, as the Catalans call the geckos, patrol the shadows of house and barn.
And there is another heat. Some green and red peppers have cross-pollinated with chilli peppers, adding the lottery of spice to our salads. Who has heard of this?
At night, meanwhile, we sleep to the purr of fans. No bad thing. They mask the chorus of the cockerels, and the final throes of the all night summer fiestas.
PS Stand by for Maggie Whitman recipes, both savoury (with lashings of Mother’s Garden fresh olive oil, naturally) and sweet.
The chickens are free-ranging, scratching for grubs of comfort on the fringes of our poorly defended tomato, aubergine, courgette and pepper patch, and I am scratching my head.
On the one hand, I will chat to anyone who is interested about provenance and how unparalleled freshness, goodness and glorious flavour can be found in your back garden or window box (as opposed to total dependence on a mesmerically-packaged supermarket diet through which big business feeds on the masses).
But on the other, I fear Italy, Spain, Greece and Morocco might be wasting their time.
Not with their timeless food wisdom – good grief, no – but with the Italian led appeal to Unesco to save the Mediterranean diet by recognising it as part of the world’s heritage.
How I hope I am wrong. Good luck to them. I want them to make the world stop and think.
Here, in the still fairly remote mountains of southern Catalonia, the wisdom is carried on the breeze from countless kitchen windows or over garden walls into the narrow streets of the hill villages. But down on the coast, in the industrial muddle choking the cities, junk is the future, ballooning as fast as the profits of the hot corporations who have so cleverly mastered cool marketing.
Why I am fearful the Unesco appeal will flop is because it could so easily appear to the keenly trained, privileged media commentators (pick a country, any country) that bombard the populous with a nauseating, unrelenting diet of cyncism, as just more fodder for scoffing. A British journalist remarked that a bridge was world heritage, not a diet. Really?
Heritage is what we preserve because of its unquestionable value. Food wisdom is profoundly – essentially – appropriate here and now for a global campaign of appreciation and preservation. And I’m not just talking about ingredients. The Mediterranean diet is also, equally, about time for food, time for sharing, sitting down together with family and friends of all ages and communicating.
Only I despair that the Unesco move will not foster anything more than ridicule; unless, of course, enough of us stand and propose a hearty toast to what it could achieve for health, longer life and the faltering heartbeat of family.
What more delicious comfort can there be to sweltering temperatures than succulence and spring water?
Scything eye-height fennel (checking carefully for swallowtail caterpillars first, of course) is a sticky summer agitator of brow and grumbling back. But we have the soothers of cool water and – mmmmmm – fresh figs.
You may already know that I, most unwisely, cannot get enough of these purple tear-drops of yumminess, best devoured while perched on the balsa wall in the ochre light, grubby feet immersed, watching the martins and swallows skim and swirl in chattering delight.
The robust fennel continues to spread, pleasingly, for we rejoice in the company of the butterflies. But, come July, when these perennial herbs that crowd the house begin to steal the view we carefully curl the blade around the fanning stalks, grasp and chop.
I was busy reaping a line that was overshadowing the tomatoes, aubergines and peppers when I suddenly had company; a noisy sparrow fledgling on my head. She moved, eventually, to my shoulder, was coaxed onto fingers and then into a quince tree. Maybe she could scent sweet figs. Maybe we had met before, because we are constantly releasing young from the chicken run netting at feeding time.
How are the sparrows faring in your part of the world? We continue to hear sad stories of decline around the world.
There are many ways to water the mind. There was I, weeding to take my mind off Britain (not so much the political hiatus but the spoilt-children of the media lobbing their toys in all directions because they want their way and they want it now) when I remembered was Puskar had said. Time is personal.
Puskar is from Nepal. A friend who has spent a few months here, helping, sowing seeds, wisdom, laughter.
Having three vegetable patches dotted about presents inevitable irrigation issues. Resourcefulness is watered by necessity (lack of cashflow) and stubbornness. We flatly refuse to throw away anything remotely recyclable until every last alternative use can be explored. Sometimes the consequences are crude. Sometimes they are quite charming.
Puskar had decided in April to dig up the small terrace in front of the house, where Maggie and her watering can had cultivated copious quantities of vegetables in our first two years. Certainly the soil there is fertile, but we had moved our patch because we bought chickens and their enclosure and afternoon free range territory was there.
We’re going to need fencing and water, I said, leaning on the low wall. Then my eyes wandered to the wine making overspill stacked against the barn, including old oak barrels that could no longer be trusted for our moonshine but are way too charming to part with.
Puskar, meanwhile, began constructing a barricade of cane, hazel and old string that has a certain something too. And it has, so far, deterred the brood from scratching out our rocket, tomato, pumpkin, pepper and melon seedlings. Now the barrel sits proudly in one corner of the patch, brimming with water, siphoned from the spring reservoir.
Pusker’s garden was created in the second week of April, and midway he broke off his labours to wish us “Navavarsha”, Happy New Year.
“Get a grip,” I said.
“No, now is our Nepalese new year. It starts very nicely now.”
“Your 2010 starts in April.”
“No. The year is 2067.” A flash of white teeth. That’s one way to circumnavigate Nostradamus.
As for the British so-called national newspapers and their ranks of well-heeled commentators living in the London bubble, please temper the ranting in, er, the national interest. Patience is a virtue, although I accept it is not a word in the journalist’s handbook. What has been written in the last few days speaks more about the authors than the politics, and virtue is libelled.
Back to the Monday morning mad rush of school run and a very necessary few hours in the office, but the garden is calling us. The season has smiled, finally, after several grim, damp days, with the joyful medley of flowers, lushness and sun.
We were out on the land most of the weekend, tending plants and hives, and trying to rig up a watering system for the potatoes, sown on to a strip in the olive grove behind the farmhouse that we left fallow for two years and then enriched with seasoned pony muck last autumn. There are pipes going in all directions and I’ve rolled out a redundant and pleasing to the eye wine barrel as a back-up water deposit, but the system isn’t working – yet.
You can never have enough compost, so we have made another bin out of old pallets from the dump. It’s market day tomorrow and Maggie has been negotiating for us to collect green waste when the stall holders pack up, which we will mix with grass cuttings from friends with a ride-on mower.
We have a brush cutter for the tractor, but there is no way to keep the greenery for compost save raking which, though tempting, would crease us. Besides, there are too many others tasks. So we have spoken to our neighbour and are supplying some natural honey comb to combat his hay fever in sensible exchange for several sacks of grass clippings. Ah, the age-old bounty of barter.