Want to get away? Fancy doing something different? Half-price working breaks at Mother’s Garden, Catalonia – and see where our wonderful, award-winning olive oil comes from. If you can’t come, but want to taste this life, we have delicious new harvest EV olive oil in the UK now for immediate delivery. Just get in touch, or log on to our shop.
We were eating in the shade of the house, between the crumbling lime render of the north wall and the tubs of three runner bean plants that have not thrived. It was a very late lunch, in the still, heavy air just before the 4pm sweet breeze from the sea.
We were stepping away from the computers and telephones, into the infinite, calming greatness.
I had my back to the pitted wall. There was a low hum. I turned and a fat and yellow creature cruised past my nose and back again – what looked like a hornet, but on reflection may not have been given what transpired.
It was twice the size of your average yellow and black incubus. Mesmerising. During the next five minutes it completely ignored me as it painstakingly explored holes in the render between the red stones, before suddenly rising rapidly through the tangle of wisteria and making a waspline for the woods.
We ate. The breeze arrived. Then back came the purring juggernaut, only now it was clutching a lime-green cricket that was twice its size. What power. Within a few seconds the paralysed prey had been hauled into the chosen hole, presumably food for the wasp’s offspring. But what was it? It had hornet markings but they are not solitary, and it did not look like a bee-wolf wasp. How I wish I had a photograph to show you.
But I did present you with photo-puzzle the other day, didn’t I? Clay pots in a tidy row, most of them sealed. Here is the grisly and frightening story behind them.
The creator was another winged resident of Mother’s Garden, the female pottery or mud dauber wasp, a viscous looking beast with a narrow, thread-like waist and long sting needle that, in fact, is mostly passive where humans are concerned. We regularly have to guide one out of the house.
All these pots, each two centimetres long, were the work of one female, and inside each pot is one lava and several paralysed spiders for it to feed on until it is ready to take wing.
How deep the pool of unknowns and how much to wonder at: How under our noses there is extraordinary life, if we but stop and see, and drop our guard, preconceptions and fears.
A wasp isn’t just a wasp, though it is a fine example of the narrow view.
Wasps come in all manner of colours and the number of species tops 30,000. Or rather, that is the number identified so far, but with nearly 10,000 new species of insects being discovered annually it could well be higher by now. (Have I found another one?)
And although we think they swirl around in gangs looking for humans to puncture, most wasps are actually solitary, non-stinging, or non-aggressive varieties. They are another critical, wondrous detail in the tapestry.
Wasps are members of the Hymenoptera order, along with bees and ants, considered to be the most beneficial to life through their pollination of fruit and vegetable crops.
There are a staggering 115,000 species of Hymenoptera, making it the second largest group to Coleoptera (beetles) of which there are 300,000 known species.
The current book pile in our bathroom is as eclectic as ever: Eric Newby travel logs, Catalan grammar course book, English poetry and, yes, a detailed guide to entomology. All of them inform me, not least how little I know.
The leaning tower of literature by my bed is too tall to list, but on top is JM Roberts’ History Of The World which I am reading to Maggie. I first read it to her two decades ago.
We are in the thick of the Roman republic, sliding towards the age of emperors, further flourishes of efficient domination and expansion, and on finally to the corruption, crumbling and collapse of something that had once seemed eternal.
What was it like for that final generation as the sand ran out?
It is unnerving reading, especially when I can bear to turn 360 degrees and attempt to hold all that is manifestly soul-breaking about the human situation now: the weight of relentless, unthinkable aggressions; the wrong, selfish, denial among the economic and political power brokers who are locked into the ages-old patterns of greed and control; the portents of palpable climate change.
I need nature more than ever – to step outside regularly, distancing myself from the numbing babble of the unbridled information age and to find clear air in which to counter the exhaustion, doubts: To try, in my own barefoot way, to find context.
A few elderberries hang from the high branches. We gathered what we could to make cordial and jelly, and now the shoal of sparrows is working to clear the rest, chirping with glee and purple paint-balling the car.
Last week we timed our evening dog walk to coincide with the honey-light and iridescent congregation of bee-eaters on the power line at the top of the farm. More and more. Maggie counted sixty. Yet our honey bees thrive too.
Life in happy balance. Reasons to hope.
It had been a fitful, bitter and gusty night on the summit, but I was in the land of nod when Joe rose at dawn, wrapped his NCFC scarf around his neck and went for a long walk. It was an act that was to bring home to me a significant truth about my son.
How good to be so sure-footed and content with nature when you are rising 13 and beginning to look out at the world.
The night before I had bellowed like a fool, calling for him to come back when he had wandered off along a path and been engulfed by swirling cloud. I chastised myself (again) for showing the fear that is founded on how my heart sees him, as my little boy.
We were at 3000ft, camping on a vast limestone and rough grass plateau of sheer cliffs with just infinity for company. We had promised we would, and so we did, with Ella and Joe raising nearly £800 for Comic Relief.
Not just for the money, but for the inspiration to appreciate forever what naturalist John Muir meant. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you… while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
The significance of Joe’s dawn adventuring in that extreme place was, on my awakening, like a care falling as if a leaf. Of all the lessons of life the greatest have to include the enchantment of nature, to want to explore and sense it. Not to be afraid. To be secure enough to walk alone. To love what is real.
There are two worlds, of course – the one that presses in on us, human-made and so obsessive as to almost deny the relevance of the other, namely the fundamental, life-supporting biosphere. Almost. Everywhere I see hope. Society is awakening, rising on a wave of real values and fulfilment to question, challenge and change a system that will surely fail if it continues to put the pollutions of profit before the legacy of a sustainable existence.
Let me tell you the story of Manolo. It is a truth not a parable, although I think it should be seen as both.
From our mountain camp we could look down on Manolo’s distant house and farm. The good beekeeper is a vital member of his little village, someone the community knows it can rely upon for good deeds. But the village council underestimated him.
A new mobile phone mast had been constructed further up the valley, above Manolo’s land. The council took it for granted that he would not object to power lines running across his farm. He did. Manolo has more than 100 hives. The bees will be affected, he told them. They offered incentives but he stood his ground.
He knows what truly matters. No amount of risk is acceptable.
The world’s honeybee population has halved in 50 years. The European Food Safety Authority has released a study linking three neonicotinoid insecticides (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin) to bee decline, concluding that the chemicals posed a “high acute risk” when used on crops attractive to bees.
Yet, shamefully and dangerously the UK government refused to back an EC two-year restriction, and was rightly savaged for its “extraordinary complacency” by the cross party House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee.
The bees symbolise the whole. The risk taking has to stop and Manolo is absolutely right.
Passive spring days are like an English summer dream here at Mother’s Garden, fostering with warmth and colour the emotional memories of my chosen youth, the days I want to remember, lush with life and light in peaceful Norfolk places when I was first numbed by the immeasurable beauty that is the great outdoors.
A serin, cousin of the canary, serenades from the treetop every morning. Then another joins in, and another. There have never been so many, or maybe I have never stood still so long to tune in to these tiny finches.
For weeks the effort has been to get a fix on the wryneck that only sings for a short while after its arrival. Kee-kee-kee-kee-kee. Easier said than done. But finally I got lucky and managed to track the call to a walnut tree then keep my eye on the blur of brown and buff mottled feathers as they whizzed on to a fig tree and then to another walnut. There it sat for five precious seconds, swivelling its head 180 degrees and allowing me to meet its eye.
It is said that when disturbed at the nest, the wryneck (genus jynx) uses this snake-like head twisting and hissing as a threat display. For this bizarre behaviour they were loved by witches, from whence has come the term to put a “jinx” on someone.
While serins have been thick in the trees, so wild asparagus has been plentiful on the ground (not to mention the breakfast menu, lightly sautéed and served on toast with a drizzle of the finest olive oil).
And here’s an embarrassing fact. Ella and Joe have recently taken me on an asparagus hunt just one mile from the farm, to a place I have never been to before. We now call it The Shire.
Due west there is a gorge into which the sun neatly sets. I’d assumed that it was impassable, and even if we did attempt to clamber over the boulders of the river bed there would be little to appreciate save a wall of rock on either side. For whatever reason I had never wanted to descend into the narrowest, lowest part of our valley.
The river was purring. The swathes of dry cane on both sides were being clattered by the wind making a sound like halyards trying to wake sleeping yacht masts.
There was an abandoned house with the words en venda – for sale – painted on one of the large stones in the wall. Its overgrown meadow was speckled with the tiny leafed mesh that is wild asparagus. Rich pickings. If nobody has beaten you to it there will be new shoots at the base, or if they have, it is best to double check because it is so easy to miss the succulent growths among all the twisted stems.
I had gone far enough, but the children lured me on with the promise of a “special place with loads of asparagus”. It wasn’t plausible, but just in case I followed.
I couldn’t believe it. Round the bend and there was still no ravine, but lush, well-tended gardens with little Hobbit houses built into the sloping land, radiating care and pride. They were the finest examples of the fertile plots where villagers spent countless fruitful hours. Through one open door I could see four, or maybe five people seated, sharing a meal.
I looked at the rows of vegetables and wondered how they had not been ploughed and plundered by the copious boar.
Another hundred metres on and the walls of rock finally closed in. The vegetation had all been combed down by the raging waters of March. Then we were at a base of a narrow abandoned terrace. Joe plunged into the undergrowth and we followed. There was just enough space to weave between bramble-engulfed hazels, and everywhere were fistfuls of asparagus happiness.
“Watch out for snakes!” I called out, as we pushed open the thorn door to the maze, but we were alone, nearly. There were no snakes, no Hobbits, but a solitary Southern Festoon butterfly. (I doubled checked – it wasn’t a Spanish Festoon.)
Keep well – and many thanks to those of you who are interested in renting or buying our farm. The conversations continue. I will tell you more next month.
Nature whirls around us, vortices of leaves reminding of the turning of the year, and we are transfixed by the kaleidoscope of existence, and death, of colours that matter.
This November the vivid hues have been yellow – not all autumn mellow but fierce too – and blood red.
Feathers have been flying at Mother’s Garden and horror has been muddled with awe. It has been carnage, not of a cat among pigeons but a goshawk among chickens.
Our brood was decimated just over a week ago, between 9 and 10 in the bright morning, and we couldn’t fathom what or how. Three dead, one wounded and another missing. Two days passed and another was taken during daylight.
After the first shock we discussed the usual suspects; fox (plentiful in the valley, but the manner of the deaths was not typical); badger (we have seen one black and white nose this year), stoat and weasel (both distinct possibilities). We looked for openings and reinforced the stout wire where perhaps, maybe, the killer could have squeezed.
We never looked to the sky. Why? Because the run was netted with the green plastic fishnet designed for fruit cages. There were a couple of gaps but we thought it was comprehensive enough to deter an aerial assault.
Maggie spotted it. We had just returned from picking up our mail in the village and there, round-shouldered like a Dickensian villain, a female goshawk was in the run, feasting on yet another chicken. I ran to the house to get my camera. Maggie edged nearer, opening the gate and trying to urge it out. The mustard-eyed, audacious raptor merely dragged the half-eaten corpse under the henhouse.
“What is it for goodness sake?”
I went into the run. Fool. The bird circled, hanging from the wire for a few seconds to allow me to hazard a guess from the plumage that it was a goshawk. Then it stood and stared straight at me with those unmistakable goshawk eyes; a large, brown-backed, seriously disgruntled bird, possibly a female.
I backed out, leaving the gate as wide as possible so it could take its leave. We watched as it rose and burst through the weak green netting, flapping slowly away past the cherries towards the forest. Privilege wrestled with despair. What a rare and wonderful sight; what a mess.
Birders will be wondering, as have I, how one bird could be responsible for multiple kills. This is not normal and there is the possibility that another carnivore was responsible in part. All I can say is that three of our birds were taken on different days. After the first slaughtering of three, the dead birds had puncture marks like stabbings, not bites.
What do you birders out there think? Is it possible one bird could do so much?
Meanwhile, despite the loss and the new labour of erecting more defences, it was a rare moment of closeness to life as well as death. Thankfully the hawk appeared completely unharmed. Now a neighbour has called to say two of his hens have been taken.
This month the birds most in evidence have been the buzzards on the phone posts, the jays and ravens, the grey heron preying on our goldfish, murmurations of spotless starlings, charms of goldfinches, two great musterings of migrating storks high in the clear sky, and great quarrels of sparrows splashing in the stone bath that has been constantly topped up by squalls.
How good the rain: More than a foot in five weeks. It came early enough to help the olives swell, and the harvest has been better than hoped, though we shivered and dripped as we carefully combed the fruit into the nets then poured them into crates. Our cooperative mill chatters urgently as the olives are brought in from the surrounding groves, in contrast to the gentle click of the dominoes of the retired farmers in the bar.
They seem oblivious to the television flickering on the wall, telling of latest developments on the talked-of independence showdown (critical elections tomorrow) and the endless economic woes. And it seems that not even the roar of engines will distract them from their game.
The world rally cars have rushed by as they do for a day every autumn, preceded and succeeded by the bizarre entourage of lads who love speed and loud exhausts. The night before the “stage” the narrow lane clogs in one direction with the laughable mix of boy racers, desperate to burn rubber, stuck behind impassable, wallowing blancmange camper vans driven by more mature devotees. The next day back they came, leaving behind piles of rubbish … and worse.
There was one close call. Our neighbour, a shepherd from Andalusia, has a knackered horse. Just as the first tarmac adrenalin rush was starting it snapped its tether and decided to stand in the lane, on a blind bend. As I ran towards it three vehicles missed it by a whisker. It didn’t dawn on any of the drivers to stop, but to be fair, as I was nearing the animal, the last one wound his window down and shouted without slowing that there was a horse. I cannot repeat my reply.
The dear old nag, part cream part dirt, now wild-eyed but still rooted to the spot, finally let me lead it back to the shepherd’s farm and the debris of dead mopeds, rubble, an upturned barrow on broken pipes and a ram’s skull on a post. Goats and sheep were penned with geese behind a blockade of old pallets. Two passive sheepdogs barely stirred and there was no sign of the large black female hound that earlier in the year had snatched one of our free-ranging hens to feed her latest litter.
The shepherd, who lives in the village not the semi-derelict farm dwelling, was in the bar when he answered my call. His response was a colourful as the mosaic of his farmyard and I could hear his wreck of an old Opel rumbling down from the village, and imagined it trying to overtake the hotrods.
As for the rally, it is but one weekend a year, a toxic reminder of how much I have changed.
Today the dawn was priceless, as jewels of dew were illuminated by a cold sun filtering through the mists. For the first time we have wild asparagus in November as well as April, and one pear tree is convinced it is blossom time. The crocus blooms give us dreamy delicacy and saffron for paellas. Mulberry, poplar, oak, fig, plane and hawthorn scatter embers of autumn across the valley, crowding the ribbon of the river banks with their chorus of colour. How good for the heart.
STOP PRESS: The new harvest olive oil is tremendous, and we are taking UK orders now for unfiltered oil, available in 2 litre containers or cases of 6x500ml bottles.
Powerful stuff, packed with fruit and goodness, a gloriously fresh, rare treat for Christmas.
We are bottling to order, and so we need to hear from you by Sunday evening, December 2.
The target is to get this fresh arbequina Mother’s Garden olive oil to mainland UK customers by the festive holiday. Email us. The choice is for a 2 litre (£27.50 delivered), or case of 6x500ml bottles (£50.50 delivered), unless you are part of a hub or share a delivery with friends which cuts the transport cost.
We hope to have this fresh olive oil with North America customers, through our friends at Dos Cielos Privado in Toronto, early in the new year. Get in touch with them for more information.
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.
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 circle of the Mother’s Garden seasons is a kaleidoscope of charms.
I should have been telling of the stirrings of autumn a month ago, of that bluster and keenness that shakes the farm from summer stupor, but the cloudless calm lingered over Iberia to the end of October and the heat only waned by gentle degree.
Rain finally came this week, and we have waltzed in puddles, and for three nights the cold has prompted us to welcome our wood burner back to life. For months, though, clear skies have given an edge to far mountains and radiant Jupiter defined the night hour.
The daily round includes giving the horses their night feed at about 10pm, and I never make haste. For weeks I have tracked the largest planet in our solar system as it has slowly overhauled the moon, three of its own satellites visible with my binoculars.
And when I wake there is Jupiter again, framed in the top window of our vaulted bedroom, as still as the air.Daytime temperatures are still circa 65 degrees F, 28 degrees C, and it would be easy to be lulled back to sleep in the belief that there is ample time, but we are wiser after ten mountain winters. And should we ever be tempted to doze then the creatures that cohabitate these ten acres prompt us to pull our fingers out.
La Petita our plump pony has grown her inch-deep winter coat; the barn swallows and meadow-feeding hoopoe are long one, the latter gifting us a striped feather; snakes can been seen in search of winter lodgings, one by our friends’ back door; and the mice have moved in. The pantomime season comes early at Mother’s Garden, and this year the intelligent little rodents who secretly rule the world have given me an exceptional run-around.
First the mice thought it would be a wheeze if they moved into our holiday cottage and surprise some lovely Americans from Idaho. That backfired slightly because the Americans were of the log cabin, wild-side variety and didn’t bat an eyelid. I, though, blew a gasket, which was probably reward enough.
The cottage was supposed to be 100 per cent proof. We have had sparrows under the tiles for years and nothing more alarming than the very occasional creature wandering in – and out – through an open door.
A mouse had made an appearance the week before, during the previous visitors’ sojourn at Mother’s Garden, and was duly trapped and released far away.
“Ha, well, there you have it. Or rather I do….Absolutely nothing to worry about,” I said, laughing like Basil Fawlty, backing out of the front door, the trap behind my back. “Just the one. All sorted. Won’t happen again. Goodness – it that the time?”
Then, as we were cleaning in preparation for the Americans to roll up I had serious doubts. There was evidence, tiny bits of chewed wood, on the stairs. This sent me on a frantic inch by inch analysis of every roof beam until a visiting helper pointed at my turn-ups.
I was, as ever, resplendent in tatty farm jeans, torn t-shirt and mad hair.
“I think it’s you,” she whispered politely.
Fair cop. I had been up the land for an hour that morning, sawing my way through a significant pile of logs, so my turn ups were brim full with sawdust. Which was a relief, of course, and I lapsed once more into the naive belief that mice are solitary. Fool.
It turned out to be a classic two-pronged attack with a farmhouse invasion by a battalion, which came to a head when one scout popped out from behind the lamp on Maggie’s side of our bed …. while she was in it. I had just figured out the cottage point of entry (the air vent beneath the fireplace which I should have covered with a fine grill seven years ago) so Maggie decamped down there for three nights while I sat up, blearily bemused.
Unlike the cottage, the ancient farmhouse has innumerable accesses, but there had to be one in our room because on the second night I closed the door and I still had company. Could it be the air vents in our chimney? Was that gnawing sound coming from behind the power socket? In the end I deduced from the droppings where I should launch a counter attack. I ripped out a length of ill-fitting skirting board – which had one of those wafer thin gaps beneath it that mice can inexplicably squeeze through – to find a cavity the size of a shoe box. It was invasion HQ. A large bucket of cement later all is quiet once more, and Maggie has come home.
You should have seen the rodent rodeo today, though, when we decided in the last the light to move the compost bins. Our 400 litres of wine had fermented and we had four barrow loads of grape pulp in front of the barn to depose of before our insatiable free-range chickens became hopelessly inebriated.
That meant doing the compost shuffle – cleaning everything out, setting aside what was ready to use and mixing the pulp with half rotten compost. We have one main bin constructed out of old pallets and I wish you could have witnessed Biba the dog when I lifted up the base pallet. Scores of mice fanned out like the Monty Python sketch of the 100 metres for people with no sense of direction. Biba was like someone trying to catch several balls at the same time and ending up with nothing.
As for the chickens, there is still enough pulp on the ground to make them smile inanely and to distract them from ruining our persimmons.
Our largest, well-watered main persimmon tree, sagging with fruit, sits in a pool of rich green grass on the otherwise parched little terrace in front of the house. For more than a week the chickens have been sailing around in the long grass, taking it in turns to launch themselves several feet into the air to peck at the fruit: Surreal to watch, like some sort of improbable fairground entertainment.
With their entourage of sparrows they can, as some of you will know from experience, wreak havoc in the vegetable patch if they can breach the defences. I spent more than an hour yesterday fortifying some winter lettuces, only to come out of the barn with a bucket full of pulp to see it had taken the pea brains less than an hour to defeat me.
An hour or two in the garden, though, is good for the soul, isn’t it? The garlic and cabbages are in, and much of the wild fennel is out. The courgettes are still flowering, just, and Maggie has decided we will keep the far end of the plot clear to see if the rocket has re-seeded itself.
I would like to say that our autumn tomatoes, now at the top of the canes, are our best of the year, but that wouldn’t be true. Amid the brambles beside the septic tank Maggie has found a mountain of self-seeded cherry tomatoes. The prettiest discovery of all, though, was hiding in the watering can.
It is an orthoptera, but is this star-burst of breathtaking colour with the iridescence of coral a grasshopper or a cricket? I think it is a variety of grasshopper, on account of the shorter antennae and that it was around during the day. Or was it holed up until nightfall? I am never absolutely sure when trying to identify insects or birds for that matter, so answers on a postcard, all you entomologists out there.
I have carried out my annual roof inspection and attempted to cleanse our chimney by means of the highly sophisticated technique of attaching an old axe head to a long piece of rope and rattling it down the pipe. Needless to say it got stuck and I had to dismantle the pipe with sooty consequences inside the house – precisely the mess I was trying to avoid in the first place.
But my couple of hours on the roof had other worth. There were 18 cracked tiles that needed repairing, two footballs to retrieve and a loose cap to one of the chimneys that could have toppled in the next gust.
I took my time. I always do when I’m up there. You get a different perspective of familiar ground. James Taylor sings of the roof being his place of peace and solace – alright, a roof terrace with stair access, but you know what I mean – and I understand what how he feels. When I lived at Barley Cottage overlooking Aldborough’s Green, I’d find any excuse on a still summer’s day to check the pointing on the old stacks, then sit on the ridge and watch the clouds.
Our kitchen sink window frames a scene of distant England as June sunshine pours dreamy first light through the plum and hazel leaves.
A watering can stands unevenly in the rough grass between the rhubarb and the dome of lavender that marks the resting place of our Norfolk-born springer spaniels, who ended their days scenting a different land. Poppies run in a ragged, enchanting picture from my Holt Ridge childhood along the edge of our potato patch, from our plastic North Norfolk District Council compost bins to the ballooning walnut tree. The poppy petals are now losing their lustre with the onset of the wilting season, but the eye turns easily to the life in the runner bean blooms that spiral up two wigwams of cane, and to the immeasurable depth of the pink, cerise and maroon roses.
Runner beans in withering heat? Only copious amounts of water dawn and dusk, both to the roots and on the flowers, have brought us to this beauty. Only time will tell if the beans brought from my mother-in-law’s mid-Norfolk garden of plenty will defy the fiery odds.
And amid the green of the potato tops you might spy a spasmodic spray of dirt as our terriers dig for frogs.
While England gasped for spring rain we ran through countless storms and stood at the window and watched mountains vanish in the density of downpours. The reservoir is full and fresh enough for swimming because our spring is running at a rate we have not seen in years. So I have corrected a failing and watered for all my worth, hence the amphibian residents among the spuds and the disastrous consequence of the hounds burrowing in the worst possible place.
But for the irony of the water it could be Norfolk. Only this Mother’s Garden scene has the faintest cast of grey – the effect of the fine net stretched across the window that keeps at bay some less savoury aspects of this enchanting world.
A month ago I received an email from a disconsolate reader of my candid chronicle No Going Back – Journey To Mother’s Garden (which, staggeringly, is still in print after eight years, just). He said he was going to cancel his camping holiday in Catalonia on account of my blood-curdling encounters with creepy crawlies, reptiles and assorted rodents.
Hang on a minute, I countered, these are experiences spanning years and are all set in, I might add, a particularly wild and furry place. I don’t think I ever mentioned the black widow spider or the stinkbug beetle. “Just pack a non-toxic insect repellent, watch where you are walking and savour the wonders”.
I never heard from him again, and am beginning to worry I might be stifling the urge in some of you to get close to Iberian nature. I sincerely hope not. We humans are invariably the problem, not the other residents. Which reminds me: Anyone remotely interested in life beyond the costas should check out one of my favourite websites, www.iberianature.com – rich in knowledge and guidance.
But, yes, the biters are out in the twilight, some even during the thumping heat of the day.
There are constant reasons to be in the great outdoors – noisy, jumbo, gentle carpenter bees working the flower spikes of bear’s breeches, a buzzard riding the sky, the glimpse of a yellow-beaked Alpine chough, hollyhocks trumpeting the summer – but June is alive with newly hatched winged critters that want blood, hence we regularly slap our bare legs like dancers in leather shorts from Bavaria.
Maybe it is all the garlic I consume, or the toughness of hide, but for some reason they tend to spare me the intolerable pain and swelling inflicted on others, although my ankles itch as I write. What is far worse is the heaviness of heart.
There has been great sadness in the wake of shock. Our young pony, La Remoli, who came to live with us when she was just a few days old, died the day before her fifth birthday. In the delicate days that followed (and roll on) we have asked ourselves all the obvious questions, and have been comforted by the vets who tended her. A week earlier she had somehow pulled a tendon in her knee, her first illness of any description. She rallied, then was lame again, but it was not deemed a life-threatening condition. Then she was gone.
All of which, beyond the emptiness, leaves us with the dilemma of La Petita, her mother.
She paced and called into the night, so we put the word out that we can offer a home to a pony in need of one. That was four weeks ago.
La Petita has settled remarkably quickly – she spent her young life alone in fairly grim circumstances – but she must be grieving. We spend as much time with her as we can, tethering her close when we are working on the land, grooming and talking to her, while the hunt for a companion goes on, with the support of knowledgeable friends and the vets.
Hand on heart I am loathed to rush into yet more responsibility, although there are two reasons why we probably will. Horses and ponies are herd animals, social creatures, and La Petita should not be alone. Nor is parting with her an option. The old girl is weaved into the Mother’s Garden story and our hearts and lives, and as our equestrian contacts advise, she has been so happy here. Some people have suggested that getting a goat or donkey might work, but the other matter we must balance is the yearning of our children. Joe Joe and Ella both want to ride, and already we know of heart-breaking rescue centres full of animals in need of freedom.
That would mean a horse rather a pony, so again I walk the land, gazing the earth, a muddle of ponderings and emotions. I promise to let you know what transpires.
The joy of swimming in the farm reservoir while the Sand Martins and Swallows swoop to drink around our heads has to be balanced with the droppings hitting the sheets on the washing line. Maybe we need to move the line! Another question is how long we can tolerate the Swallows nesting in the barn. We love them and will never stop them, but there are seven nests on the high beams now and the mess means we need to cover everything.
Strangely the Bee-Eaters have not come near our four hives so far this summer, but they are here in plenty, increasing in number. We have found new colonies, and see one pair boldly return to an old site in a bank right beside the lane.
The Golden Orioles sing at sunrise and the Buzzard patrols, and the best sightings have been of a Pied Flycatcher, Peregrine, Bonelli’s eagle that glided very low over the farm, and an Alpine Chough. The Chough was a first for us, and clearly identifiable. The sighting was, naturally, higher in the mountains, but still only about 5 miles from Mother’s Garden.
A butterfly footnote. All of the honeysuckle we have planted is bringing not only glorious scent but a surge in the number of Southern White Admirals. The larger White Admirals are again much in evidence, but I have not seen a Swallowtail caterpillar on the fennel or a Swallowtail butterfly on the farm so far this year. It can’t be long…….
The striped lizard zipped up to the plateau of the waist-high olive tree stump and looked down at our dogs. Delirious, their noses fizzing with the scents of awakening life, the nutty hounds clawed at the earth and roots.
Content in the knowledge that they weren’t after a viper (and that their pencil thin prey clearly had a bigger brain than either of them) I walked on up the land to check on the ponies.
Remoli, now five, was distressed and whinnying. I’d tethered her to another olive tree half way along the track to the top vineyard, just 20 metres away from her mum, La Petita, on the longer rope with a grazing circle that encompassed alfalfa, assorted grasses, dandelions a wild vine and an abandoned hazel. Pony paradise, or so I’d thought.
Such alarm calls normally mean La Petita has slipped her halter again and drifted out of Remoli’s sight, but the old pony was still there, munching merrily. Then I saw that Remoli’s mouth and nose were swelling.
Snake. It must be. But where? Remoli was panting and straining to get as far away as possible from a small pile of oak logs half lost beneath burgeoning bramble. I prodded it pathetically with a stick and searched the area, but it was a useless. Needle and haystack.
When both ponies were back in the corral I raced past the lizard and burrowing dogs to check on the internet what drastic action to take, only to be horrified by a series of American sites that told of horses suffocating following a venomous bite on the nose. “Stick pipe up their nostrils” said one.
I rang the vet. To cut a morning to less than a minute, all turned out well. The vet was with us within the hour and administered something that settled both pony and the inflammation.
Yes, she confirmed, it most probably was a snake, but there was nothing as poisonous here as in America and she had never known of a horse dying after a snake bite.
Even so, we do have small vipers, similar to Adders in potency, and also the Montpellier, a distinctly not small serpent (up to two metres in length) with venom in fangs at the back of its mouth that will give you a nasty turn but won’t kill you unless you stick your finger down its throat which someone did, apparently, with dire consequence. The question was which had moved in.
A stupid question, of course, because given the wide variety of inhabitants on these ecological, overgrown acres it is a magnet for all manner of predators.
Montpellier it was, we feel sure now. A few days later two of these large-eyed, somewhat menacing snakes were found sunning themselves beside an olive tree, just five metres from where Remoli was bitten. It is the breeding season, so disturbing them didn’t help their disposition either. Montpelliers are known for their short fuses, and I backed away as one coiled, raised its head and inflamed its neck as if to strike.
No need to be reckless, Martin. Besides, I had barely recovered from the honey repercussions.
The storeroom now contains copious amounts of liquid nectar after my first harvest visit to the hives this year, and my ankles and calves still itch.
Like a fool, and hungry as a bear with very little between the ears, I had gone to the hives on the first calm, warm, clear day after a May storm. I usually take a little honey in mid May and some more at the end of June, then leave the bees to stock up for the winter, a rhythm that has suited everyone for five years. One hive has grown to two, then three, now four.
But golden honey rules include (as all keepers know), patience, a steady heart, timing and tucking your trousers into your boots or socks.
Ten-year-old Joe Joe was with me but I, dazzled by the amount of honey to be had, failed to note that a) there really wasn’t enough warmth in the days to draw out the bees, so the hives were packed, and b) my trouser bottoms were not secured.
As I was gently brushing the bees from the frames they were congregating on my shoes and walking north.
Joe Joe was better organised in the ankle department, but once a bee stings others immediately join in and he suffered too as his tracksuit bottoms proved too thin and he retreated, tearfully. I pressed on to tidy up and secure the hives, but all grace was gone and I Riverdanced across the meadow.
Joe Joe was being nursed by his mum in the kitchen when I staggered in,and I thought, that’s it – he will never want to go near the hives again. I, on the other hand, had to get my act together and get back out there, once the pain of the 16+ swellings had eased.
What transpired was, well, wonderful (on the whole). I returned to our little apiary later that afternoon, to apologise and to finish my work. My legs were stiff but not too bad, and by my side was my son, who flatly refused to be put off. We were calmer, better prepared and neither of us was stung again. Joe said no more about his pains as, in the shade of the wisteria behind the farmhouse, we span the frames and weighed 30lbs of honey.
I, on the other hand, could barely walk by this time. My ankles decided they had had enough punishment and I crawled off to bed.
May wasn’t finished yet by a long way. As always after an April drenching May stages its fiesta of existence. A Great Tit wafted into the kitchen and watched me writing, settling on top of the computer screen at one point. The Melodious Warbler in the pine above the corral has been beside himself for weeks, the Golden Orioles are tootling greetings in some distant chorus, while the cheeky Woodchat Shrike has returned to follow me around on the tractor as I cut the grass.
I am not the only one. In the puzzle of this life 1000 miles away we have missed our childhoods and adulthoods of Norfolk stubble fields and bales, of that great English sense of harvest done. Olive and almond groves and wavy lines of vines on ancient terraces have their own charm, yet different.
Well, how utterly enchanting, then, to find that a neighbour at the top of the valley but a mile from Mother’s Garden has grown, cut and baled straw – or is it hay? It is the first time we have seen such a local scene on such a scale and it closes distance in the blink of an eye every time we trundle past it. It could be Northrepps or Docking, but for the rugged skyline.
Now, before you all start writing to the editor saying “that’s definitely not hay, bor, that’s straw”, it was a fairly pure grass crop and they didn’t harvest any grain, so does that make it hay? Can any farmers in Norfolk tell me? I hear haymaking has started very early in East Anglia.