When the past comes to life
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.