January Gardens

So since the end of January hove into view and the tumult of rain ebbed to mizzle I’ve begun making small tours of the garden to see what has survived, what has disappeared and what has reached up to the surface of the soil to make a cautious start into growth.

In the depths of this winter I’ve taken to curling up by the fire and dipping into my new gardening book-‘Down to Earth’ by Monty Don, which makes me feel both woefully inadequate and also inspired to try new ideas and plants in our modest piece of land.

In addition to all these garden ponderings we’ve made a visit to wonderful Mottisfont House, near Romsey in Hampshire, where, even in the depths of winter the gardens are spectacular.

Swathes of delicate snowdrops are draped around trees and along the banks of The Test river and in the wonderful winter garden the bare coloured branches of shrubs are just beautiful. On our own plot the 300 snowdrop plants I spent several hours planting last year have rewarded me with 5 lonely flowers. Heaven only knows what became of the other 295-but squirrels may be the culprits [about which, more later].

Vibrant drifts of cyclamen have been planted around the bases of shrubs and trees.

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At least these hardy, winter flowers have taken hold in our garden, having been transferred from winter pots onto the dastardly, dry shade bank.

Mottisfont’s walled gardens [three of them] are vast and while bare at this time of year are still a pleasure to stroll around. Then there is a circle of trees with an interesting sound installation.

Inside the old house the top two floors are hosting a cartoon exhibition, with original gems from the likes of Ronald Searle, Thelwell and Heath Robinson. All the exhibits are for sale, and while I’d really like a Heath Robinson they are pricey.

In the second hand bookshop, next to the ‘Stables’ café there are two shelves of gardening books, which are tempting, until I remember that, as with everything else, Plants, theory and advice goes out of date. It used to be the thing to dig over your flower and vegetable beds to keep the soil weed and clump free. Nowadays we are to leave it to the worms to sort out. But having toured Mottisfont’s gardens I realise I should be mulching as if my life depended on it.

As for squirrels-they are out of favour here at the Schloss, having eaten their way through our roof lead until the rain has poured through. They must now be trapped and decanted to new territories and the repairs must be done. Such is life. No such difficulties at Mottisfont…

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2019-The Year in Travel

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One way or another, this year we’ve indulged in seven trips, which seems, on first reading to be self-indulgent [a view that is certainly hinted at by some]. I don’t like to call our pieces of travel ‘holidays’, because holiday is an ambiguous term that means different things to different people. A holiday to many [myself included when I was a proper working person] is simply a break from work, lolling on a sofa in pyjamas watching movies. To others it is somewhere hot, lolling by a pool in swimwear. For us it is a foray into learning about places-their history and geography, the art and the culture.

The first 2019 trip was in January-to Scotland in our camper van, which may appear a strange choice to some, but the weather, though cold [-6 at Loch Ness] was mainly crisp and sunny, ideal for seeing the dramatic scenery of The Cairngorms or the grandiose architecture of Glasgow.

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Next, in February, we made a self-indulgent winter sun visit to Barbados, a tiny, laid-back, friendly island, where we self-catered in a modest ‘apart-hotel’ and enjoyed the company of our fellow guests, jovial Canadians, most of them.

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In the spring we trundled off along the [extremely wet] north coast of Spain, a spectacular journey following the pilgrims route to Santiago de Compostela. This rugged coast includes many cliffside towns that would rival the Amalfi Coast, if only there was sunshine and dry weather. We continued on around the corner to Portugal, which defied our experience of always being warm and sunny to be cloudy and windy. There is not much left of Portugal we haven’t seen but it remains a favourite destination.

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We undertook an early summer jaunt to Brittany, to cycle some of the Nantes-Brest canal. This was a spectacularly successful trip, the well-appointed, municipal sites along the canal cheap and conveniently placed by the towpath. But the temperature soared into the 40s, making cycling tricky even in the evenings. It was, however scenic, memorable and pleasant and we are likely to cycle some more French canal paths.

Brittany cycling

Later in the summer we stayed locally in a New Forest site by a small, handy railway station and a large pub, hosting a small granddaughter who had requested to come camping with us and fell in love with it all immediately, especially riding around on her bike, being surrounded by wild ponies and cows and eating outside in the fresh air.

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This was followed in the autumn by a visit to the outrageously gorgeous Italian lakes, starting with Lugano and continuing on to Como, Iseo, Garda and Maggiore-all very different but all breathtakingly beautiful-and new to us as a destination. The return drive over The Alps via the Simplon Pass was spectacular and I’ve no doubt we’ll return to the lakes at some point.

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Our last outing, in October,  was to visit Norwegian friends where they live overlooking a fjord near Aalesund. We were gifted with cool, clear sunshine and our hosts’ hospitality was lavish.

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So a brilliant year of travel; but where to in 2020? Well-weather permitting we’ll be sampling the delights of the Lake District, UK in January, then heading for long-haul sun in February. After that, who knows? Will European travel even be feasible? We can only wait to find out…

Three Lakes

It is tricky enough to park a camper van at Lake Como, let alone find a place to stay, but we do find a site, albeit at the uninteresting end of the lake. The village is hosting a ‘truck’ festival and is thronged with fans of lorries. At the end of this Sunday the trucks are heading home, bedecked with lights, tinsel and decorations and, unburdened of a trailer,  showing off with a turn of speed.

We wander back to the site, where we are the only touring unit. The surrounding mountains are white-topped and have taken on a pinkish glow from the sunset.P1080117

It is time to get along to another lake and we’ve chosen one we’ve never heard of-Lake Iseo, which has the distinction of Europe’s largest lake island [according to our ‘Rough Guide’]. To get there we drive along a long way through a verdant valley where vineyards, orchards and salad crops line the hillsides and roadsides, eventually turning to climb up into a mountain pass. Here the buildings are Alpine chalets, the industry skiing. The largest town is Aprico, bustling even in the summer season.

Lunch is a stop in a lay-by outside a monastery. An opportunistic van is selling momastic produce: cheese, wine and nibbles, from which I feel duty bound to buy a sample. Soon we are plunging into a series of tunnels and there is our next lake,  Iseo, sparkling in the afternoon sun.

Lake Iseo, we find contains the largest European lake island, Monte Isolo, a circular mound rising from the lake, 9km in circumference and inhospitable to all traffic except deliveries and bikes. We can take our bikes on to the ferry, where a cycle rack at the prow provides parking.

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The cycle path around the island is picturesque, although sometimes challenging!

A rustic bar at a [lofty] half-way point provides cold beers, which are much needed!

On our second day we cycle from our site near the town of Iseo around to the southern end of the lake-pleasant and undemanding.

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Then it’s time to pack up and head off to Lake Garda, the largest of these Italian lakes, where we find a shady spot on a site in an old olive grove and are surprised to find a large number of British tourers for the first time this trip. The site has a large pool and a beach and is dog-friendly [unlike some], which may explain its popularity with my fellow-countrymen?

By now it’s hot and the olive trees are most welcome for the shade they provide. This is our second visit to Lake Garda, the first having been made en route to Sicily a couple of years ago, when we stayed at Peschiera, a few miles further around this southern end of the lake.

It doesn’t take too long to discover that cycling here is not for the faint-hearted [such as myself]-as the roads are not cycle-friendly, nor are the gradients. We will have to find another way to explore the vast expanse of Lago di Garda…

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Santiago de Compostela-for Philistines.

Travel along Spain’s north coast and you will be guaranteed stupendous views, beautiful beaches and the sight of a great many ‘pilgrims’ trudging along the Camino de Santiago, following thousand upon thousands of sunburst signs as they make their way towards their Mecca, Santiago de Compostela.

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In true martyr-ish style, wholly in line with Catholic traditions, this Easter’s weather helps them on their way by being utterly appalling. This part of Spain is renowned for wet weather but this year’s exceeds all expectations. The entire country is deluged with torrential downpours while the UK basks in unusual warm sunshine.

Groups of walkers line our route, clad in voluminous, dripping capes that cover them and their rucksacks, giving them the appearance of soggy, deformed camels. Many have walking sticks and a fair number use Nordic walking poles. Is this a true dedication to the cause of suffering, I wonder?

The pilgrims come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities and ages; entire families with children, pairs of young girls, single people. Many meet up along the way and travel together, like the two young American girls with a short Portuguese man we met on one of our [non pilgrim] walks. Some look grimly determined, some chat as they walk, others sport beatific smiles as though already transported by their ordeal.

The nearer you get to Santiago, the more pilgrims there are, waiting at crossings, standing on corners, munching things, looking at phones.

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We’ve waited until Easter is over to visit Santiago and arrive on the Tuesday after, thinking it will be less fraught to negotiate the traffic, but we are still caught out by a parade of some kind and must effect a slow crawl through the narrow streets to find the camper-stop, which is situated up above the city-at least we can’t be flooded out. It is well organised and well used, a manned entrance cabin, tickets, a useful city map, water and emptying supplied.

Since there is no sign-from any source-that the rain is going to abate we don raincoats, grab umbrellas and run for the city centre bus, which takes us down into the heart of what is a beautiful, elegant place, wet or not.

Santiago seems designed for rain, cloistered walkways abound and there is no shortage of drains, into which rainwater gushes or tips from rooftop spouts. Crowds accumulate in the worst showers, huddling in doorways or squeezing into tiny shops selling religious icons and souvenirs.

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We are spoilt for choice for our naff shelf collection [read here].

At last we seek refuge from the showers in the cathedral museum, where I am clucked at for photographing. The art works are fascinating and also slightly bonkers, as religious art can be. The topmost floor is open to the elements with rooms off, containing cases of bejewelled, silver or gold crosses and paraphernalia in abundance-a demonstration of the wealth of the Catholic church.

Another set of rooms has wonderful, wall-sized Belgian tapestries depicting country scenes of people carousing at Inns. The detail is worth studying-drinkers at tables, dogs stealing food, babies being fed, a man peeing up against a wall-all most un-ecclesiastical.

When we tire of the relentless deluge we get the bus back to our warm and cosy van.

Next day there is a lull in the rain, long enough for servicing the van, then we’re off to brighter skies, drier roads and a quieter time-and Portugal!

It’s not so far. We stop for lunch on a small quay by the River Minho, choppy waves in the stiff breeze.

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Onwards to Vila Cha, the latter stages of the journey corrugated by cobbled roads. After a series of winding lanes we reach our chosen site, but as we approach we realise-of course! We’ve stayed here before. This is not bad news-the excellent restaurant opposite the entrance is still thriving!

A Dog’s Breakfast of Linguistics

Driving towards the Spanish border and San Sebastian I am attempting to reclaim, renovate and restore my rusty Spanish, a language that’s languished unused for a couple of years. A few words and phrases float in- ‘Si’ ‘No’ ‘por favor’ ‘gracias’ ‘lo siento’ ‘la cuenta’ ‘cervezas’ and ‘banos’. All the essentials. Then I get to wondering what the word for breakfast is and it becomes an irritation. I can find the German word-‘fruhstuck’ but I’m frustrated by Spanish breakfast. This is absurd, mainly because we’ve no need whatsoever to be ordering breakfast in Spain.

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We locate a site with great mountain views and stretch legs by plunging down a steep, bendy road towards the sea. The weather has turned hot and muggy and by the time we’ve returned and got some chairs out the first drops of thunderous storm have arrived. Rain continues until bed time but by morning it has all cleared and it’s bright, sunny and fresh.

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A convenient bus ride takes us into San Sebastian via Monte Igelda [where our site is], stopping at the ancient funicular en route. After locating the tourist office we follow a suggested walking route around the city which takes in major plazas, the waterfront and important landmarks such as the Basilica. We stop for tapas lunch at ‘Tapas Santana’, where a sumptuous display of tapas dishes fills the counter and hordes crowd in. I look at the menu and there it is: desayuno-breakfast. Of course!

Husband waves me to the counter to order, although I’m not ready, not well enough rehearsed in my renaissance Spanish. I muddle through aided by the kindness of the waiter and we are rewarded with a delicious lunch.

We leave next day for San Juan de Gaztelugatxe and get hopelessly muddled when our new SATNAV decides the best route is along unmade mountain cart tracks, but at last we find a sensible coast road, albeit winding and tortuous. The terrain here resembles the Amalfi coast but with fewer tourists even now at Easter time. After a number of glitches, including a near-death experience on the motorway when a bendy bus decides we are a pesky nuisance and attempts to do away with us, we arrive to San Juan de G, a destination better known as a location for filming Game of Thrones than for scenic or religious significance. It is, however spectacular.

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The tiny church of San Juan, dating from AD890,  is perched upon an island rock accessed by a winding path across a stone causeway. The path down [and up!] is steep and arduous. But plenty of people of all ages, sizes and fitness are tackling the walk. Remembering the Tiger Cave Temple climb in Thailand we decide this is a doddle, which it isn’t, but we make it down and up.

It is only a stone’s throw then down to Bakio, where a perfectly nice, free, well-serviced aire awaits. Here is surfing galore so of the many vans parked up a lot are typically bohemian and strewn with the paraphernalia of the sport.

Leaving Bakio we head off towards Comillas, the steady drizzle strengthening into steady rain, which continues throughout the day and is still dropping relentlessly when we arrive to our selected site. On into the evening it rains…and rains. Next morning it is still raining. So the rain in Spain is not restricted to the plain, clearly…

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

There is no quick fix for a garden. At our last house I laboured over the garden for twenty years and waged a constant battle with the difficulties it presented: blustery, coastal breezes, dry, dusty soil with never a sign of a worm, cold winter gales and unforgiving summer sun. I learned to grow things that liked the conditions and gave up on desires for luscious rose bushes, cottage garden displays and tumbling, old English cottage looks in favour of tough, architectural plants like palms and Cordyline, resilient sea-holly and ornamental hops.

After two years of our new [to us], very different garden we continue to wrestle with a challenging set of problems although they are quite different. The dry areas here are caused by large trees and we’ve swapped relentless sun for dominant shade. Dry shade is reputed to be one of the most difficult conditions to address in a garden, this being also exacerbated by slopes. Dry shade slopes.

During our spring expedition three clematis [out of five] turned up their roots and expired due to drought, after which I watered, since we were not subject to a hose pipe ban and fed every last plantlet. In spite of this mildew set in to such traditionally hardy stalwarts as honeysuckle and geraniums.

In our semi-wild garden we are fortunate to see regular wildlife visitors such as foxes, bats and squirrels as well as a large range of wild birds. In late May a speckled juvenile robin became so tame as to perch on my fork as I delved into the compost heap and accompanied me on all evening watering sessions. We christened him ‘Speckle’ and he continues to visit now-although with a handsome red waistcoat and a little less intrepid.

In the dried out lawn bumble bees set up home and have kept us entertained throughout the hot, dry summer with their coming and going. They vary in size from small, agile creatures to gargantuan, furry bombs whose improbable flights are ungainly. They lurch in drunken circles in efforts to land and access the tunnel they’ve constructed.

I hankered after a hedgehog to complete the wildlife in our garden, which should be the perfect habitat-with a miniature copse, piles of leaves, piles of logs, abundant snails, water and all hedgehog mod-cons. We constructed a small hole in the base of the fence to allow access and departure.

I visited the garden late at night with no results, until one morning Husband woke up and spotted one on the grass in broad daylight, just beside the bumble bee nest. He brought me the news: the creature was lying on its back, lifeless. My one and only hedgehog-deceased!

Did it stumble into the environs of the bumble bee nest? Did a fox attack it? Or an owl? We will never know. And I have yet to see a real, live hedgehog availing itself of the garden facilities. Ho hum…

 

 

Playing Host to the Beast

In what is clearly a gift to 24-hour news broadcasters, newspapers and weather people, ‘The Beast from the East’ has chosen to visit the UK. I’m sceptical. I’m inclined to think that this blanket of snow, ice and bitter winds has been engendered by the Russians [or to be clearer, Putin] in order to further de-stabilise poor, beleaguered Europe; to undermine the infra-structures, to disrupt our transport systems, to bring manufacturing to a halt.
Once all this has happened, Russia can flood our [and for the purposes of this post I’m considering we are part of Europe-mere wishful thinking on my part] markets with their own products. So along with the eventual thaw we can expect a deluge of potatoes, petrol, samovars, beetroot and nesting Russian dolls. This is fortunate for me, since I’m partial to beetroot and potatoes and have two small granddaughters, although there is a limit to the quantity of petrol our lawn mower can consume in one season.
Conspiracy theories apart, this late spell of winter sparks the usual flurry of journalistic activity, producing every kind of article from ‘how to care for the homeless’ to ‘what to wear in cold conditions’ to ‘what to carry in the boot of your car in the event of becoming stuck in snow’. This is all very useful and informative-to someone who has recently moved here from Death Valley, California or the Australian Outback. The rest of us are only too aware of what to put on [layers of woolly clothes], how to provide for the homeless [inviting them in to your spare bedroom, lobbying your local council/contributing to homeless charities/adding blankets and scarves to their belongings] and what we should put in our vehicles [hot drinks/blankets/spades].
I know I’m risking eye-rolling as I mention it, but anyone who was born before the 1960s and especially in a rural location will have experienced winter weather in a home without central heating and perhaps without a bathroom. Ice on the insides of windows and across the surface of the cess pit outside in the garden latrine was the norm. We did, of course have lovely, sooty coal fires to sit around and even to bath in front of.
As a child I loved snowy, icy days; loved splintering up the ice on a frozen puddle and making footprints in virgin snow. School playtimes were a riot of fun without any health and safety guidelines or gritting procedures as we worked together to manufacture the longest, smoothest, glassiest, most slippery ice slide imaginable in a diagonal strip that we queued up for whenever we were released from the classroom. We’d return to find our beautiful little, third-of-a-pint milk bottles were filled with lumps of ice so large they had pushed the foil lids up.
This morning we woke in our centrally heated house to find glassy ice had frosted all the windows, creating an interesting, bathroom-type effect; not the fancy, curly patterns I used to find on my bedroom windows as a child but at least this ice is on the outside, which is progress.