Summer has begun

It’s a hot afternoon and I’m sitting in the hammock under the dappled shade of an ash tree contemplating my new life here. The breeze is keeping me cool and from the hammock I am overlooking the roof of our house, part of our field and the view of the tree-covered hills beyond. There are birds singing, bees buzzing, crickets chirping, a far away cockerel crowing, and in the distance I can hear cowbells and the occasional dog barking in the village below. Our field has turned into a beautiful meadow since the cows departed for higher pastures. The grasses are waving in the breeze and the wildflowers are blooming in the sun. The grass won’t get cut for hay until the end of July, and after that the cows will be back.

Dave is away at the moment on a natural building course in Portugal. My sister Faye and her boyfriend Iain were here visiting for five days, and yesterday evening I dropped them off at the airport. Whilst they were here, we had some nice holiday time walking along the river, having lunches in the sun and chatting over beers, but they also got to work building a fence to keep the cows out of what will be the pumpkin patch. It’s looking wonderful and went up a lot faster with extra pairs of hands! I spent this morning finishing off the fence and starting to scythe the part of the field I want to plant.

Before that, Dave’s parents were here to visit. They had less luck with the weather but we enjoyed several little jaunts including a trip around a big cave in the next valley. It contains one of the largest bat populations in Spain! You can’t go in the bit where the bats live, but we had a great tour of the other parts of the cave.

The veg garden is growing up nicely. It looks like we’re about to have quite a lot of peas to eat, which will be just great! And all my summer crops are starting to get going now. I’ve planted out my runner beans by their poles. I’ve got lots of seedlings coming up of parsnip, broccoli, cauliflower, pumpkin, French bean, kohl rabi, white beetroot, sweetcorn and sunflower. The tomato and pepper plants that I’ve been growing in small pots are all going to need somewhere to go, but I’m still deciding where that will be! There always seems to be a lot to do. I counted the other day that I have to make space for about 50 pumpkin plants, despite already having 25 out in the garden. If they all grew up to give us an average of 2.5 pumpkins each, that would be 188 pumpkins. That may be a few too many… we shall see.

As for the house… well there has been a tiny amount of progress because the stone builder came up to have a look at it. He recons that we don’t have to do anything will the bulging walls except to re-point them (i.e. replace the mortar between the stones). That was a big relief and that’s a lot of work that we don’t have to do, so phew!

We chatted to him about the work we wanted to do whilst he was here. When I said that I was keen to have the re-pointing done in the old style, using a clay-soil mix for mortar, he said “But that’s how they did things before. Now we have cement and it’s better.” I’m sure cement is stronger, but the point of the mortar is to allow the wall to breathe as well as support the stones and make it weather proof. We still haven’t decided what to do, but I think we’re both pretty strongly against using cement in our build. Cement is energy-intensive to produce, releasing a lot of CO2 in the process. I know we’re only doing a small project so you might think our contribution won’t make a difference, but imagine everyone realised that they could make a difference by doing their little projects in a more sustainable way.

Now we just have to choose roof insulation, order the materials and get on with it! Don’t hold your breath.

Even though progress might seem glacial, I don’t feel any stress or pressure about this project. It would be nice to have a roof, walls, windows, door and a wood stove before winter, but other than that we can do the internal parts later on even if the weather isn’t great.

At the moment, I’m enjoying our first summer here and regularly reflecting on how happy and lucky I feel to be here. This place is fantastic, our neighbours are wonderful and I spend my time outdoors doing what I love.

And just in case things weren’t perfect enough, Tarje and Signe’s dog Fi had two puppies a few weeks ago. They are going to keep the boy puppy who’s called Raid, and Dave and I are going to have the girl puppy who’s called Charlie. The pair of them have just started stumbling around and wagging their tails and trying to play fight with each other between falling over. It’s pretty much the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen.

So there we go – we’re about to have a dog to train and feed as well as a house to do up and a garden to tend. We still have occasional shitty days where it rains all the time or we are tired or argumentative, but on the whole, life is pretty fucking epic at the moment.

Maybe I will go and have something to eat whilst waiting for the garden to be in the evening shade so that I can carry on scything.

-Anna

The Renners braved a trip into the bat cave!

Faye and Iain enjoyed a lovely sunny visit

The garden is coming to life

We made some new friends in another valley

Pictures from home

The puppies Charlie and Raid with Mum Fi

Tent life

It’s been a month and a half since we moved, which is barely believable. We still haven’t started on the house yet, so don’t get too excited, but we have done a few things to make life outdoors a little more civilised…

Following a trip to Ikea and at least 40 minutes in the car park trying to cram everything into the boot, we are excited to have a comfy mattress, new duvet and real towels! We also have light in the tent and the wood burning stove set up, which is a lovely development and we can now enjoy sitting by the fire reading a book on a chilly night.

I moved the mountain of bramble cuttings that had been accumulating in the garden, then we dug out a little pond (where apparently there used to be one) and it’s now home to pond skaters, a toad and lots and lots of mosquito larvae. And the passing dogs like to play in it, destroying our lovely reed bed in the process.

We knocked down half of the ugly concrete water storage tank outside the house and Dave turned the rest of it into a sink – brilliant! No more on-the-grass washing up with the hosepipe.

Dave worked through snow, wind, hail and sun to put up an outdoor shower in advance of his siblings visiting, then we screened it with bamboo. So no more hope-nobody-is-coming washes with the hosepipe either. There’s a wonderful view from the new shower to distract you from the cold water! It does actually get quite hot when the sun is shining on the black hose, but we’ve had our share of cloudy and chilly days of late!

The garden continues to expand and fill with food. We’ve been eating lettuce, rocket, rapini, radishes, carrots, coriander, chives and mint from the garden. My nursery is doing alright, although I had several set-backs including mouse-eaten seeds! Already dreaming of a nice greenhouse, but I think it will have to wait.

We all spent a day building a hot compost heap! If you don’t have a garden, maybe you don’t get as excited by compost as gardeners do, so you’ll just have to take it from me that compost is exciting. The idea with hot compost is that you pile up alternating layers of ‘green’ like freshly cut grass and weeds and ‘brown’ like straw or dry leaves. Then it gets up to 55 degrees, then you turn it, then it heats up, then you turn it, etc. And after 18 days, you have a huge pile of perfect soil for the garden and all the weed seeds have been killed by the heat. Except ours got too hot and killed all the good bacteria! We’ve managed to get it going now but it is not as quick as it should be.

We have been to check out the local climbing wall with Tarje and Signe – there are loads of great routes, the views are wonderful and when you’re not climbing you can hang out in the shade of the trees, so it seems ideal! Just need to wrench myself away from the garden some time to go back.

We enjoyed a four-day visit from Dave’s siblings and nephew, which was lovely. We went to the beach, walked up to the hermitage, visited the 1000-yr old yew tree, had a typical ‘menu del dia’ lunch that filled us up until bedtime and sat outside the house drinking beer. And they seemed to be happy enough with the guest sleeping arrangements – at least we have mattresses, duvets, pillows and towels now.

Our new washing machine arrived! It’s sooooo good. When the sun is shining, it doesn’t even use power from the batteries. Dave has also taken to doing his fair share of laundry now that it doesn’t have to be done by hand.

 

Dave has been keeping busy with more carpentry projects – improving the shower with a lovely door, making more steps up to the house and digging a flat area for a new poo pit! We were told that a 1m x 1m x 1m humanure compost area would take a year to fill up, and although ours was only about half that, we seem to have filled it in less than two months! The next one will be bigger.

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We have started thinking about the house. We’ve got our first quote for materials for the roof and we’ve started the process of making contact with someone who can advise us as to what to do about our bulging back wall. So hopefully next month we’ll at least know what we plan to do, even if we haven’t started yet!

In the meantime, here’s a few pictures of the place…

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The Iberian emerald lizard – endemic to the Iberian peninsula

We had some snow and quite a good frost. Luckily the only things out in the garden were hardy enough to cope and we already had the fire set up and our new duvet.

We’ve seen all kinds of weather here now! I definitely felt a need to crack on with the house after that frost, but otherwise we’ve still really been enjoying life outdoors.

Anna

We’ve moved!

On the last day in March we packed up the car, finished cleaning out our apartment and drove over to the new house. We left Richard and Suzanne with new workaway volunteer Pablo, having spent a few days with to show him around. He works hard in the mornings and then goes for long walks in the mountains in the afternoons, so we were confident that we’d left them with a pair of good helping hands. And it’s only a week or two until we go back and visit them.

Moving day was long but once we were on the motorway, we relaxed and everything seemed to go smoothly. We arrived and put the tent up with Tarje helping us to do it without arguing. It took a lot longer to put it up on a platform than grass because you have to peg out the guy lines with screws and wooden poles and things. But it was ready to sleep in on the first night, which was an exciting development, albeit bloody freezing.

We had a chilly, rainy few days but made the most of it with a whole day’s expedition to the city’s shops with a list a mile long. We got some things to make life easier and more comfortable, and it’s already starting to feel like home.

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Our tent and house

On one walk to the car, we met Alberto (who had previously given us three cherry trees to plant) and he offered us a mattress. It’s the smallest double I’ve ever seen at 180cm long by 120cm wide, but it fits perfectly in our tent! Of course Dave doesn’t fit perfectly in it, so we’ll have to fashion some sort of one-sided extension at some point, but it beats the camping mattress.

We found a bed frame in the house and Tarje and Signe gave us some legs for it, and we moved the big arm chairs from the house to the tent, so it’s pretty nice in there now. Just need some shelving to keep out piles of clothes off the floor and we’ll be set.

Dave built some steps up to our platform and I spent a day organising the downstairs of the house. Amongst the piles of dusty rubbish, I found a two-hob burner, a full gas bottle, a mirror, a full box of cutlery and some plates, which are all coming in handy. I put up some shelving and boxed up all our food in there and even though it’s 12 degrees and not as cold as a fridge, it keeps things pretty well.

Dave and Tarje spent several days hooking up three of the solar panels and four of the batteries that we got together (that’s only part of the system that we’ll have eventually, but the roof isn’t ready to have panels on it yet). So now, as if by magic, we have off-grid power! It’s brilliant – there’s a plug in our tent and you can power stuff from it! Signe and I are already dreaming about a washing machine. I find our small amount of hand laundry a pain, but they’ve got little Roar going through clothes and nappies every day.

Although I’m sure we will get our own wifi connection here, there is actually a public building in the next village that has great internet. Dave has been given a key to the place for 3€ a month, so he’s been working in there a few days whilst I’ve been organising the place, planting seeds and building a little plant nursery. The first three or four days we were here, I pretty much was busy from dawn till dusk, too excited about getting on with things to sit down. But that’s pretty tiring and my body is aching, so I’m resigned to taking it a bit easier, especially when it’s as hot as it has been! We’ve had three days in the high 20s and whilst it’s lovely to sit in the shade, it can get a bit hot working out in the sun. But at least in this weather, my tomatoes and chillies should be germinating!

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Dave filling my newly built nursery bed with cow poo

The wildlife here is gloriously abundant. There are little lizards basking on the rocks, butterflies, bees and other insects buzzing all around and little birds chirping in the trees. You can’t put anything down without something going to live in it! I had left a bit of old carpet outside on a rock and when I picked it up, there were loads of earthworms underneath. The planting modules attract butterflies, and then the lizards that live in the wall hunt them. We put a tarp over a fence so that we could ‘shower’ in relative privacy and when I went to take it down there was a lizard basking in its folds. The songbirds dance around our tent in the mornings and sometimes you see a bird of prey or a vulture flying high overhead. There are patches of white and pink blossoms around and the broadleaf trees are starting to emerge from their dormant winter. The hillside we overlook that has been brown all winter is getting greener by the day as the ash and oak trees are first to emerge between the beeches. We have been taking walks over to those woods get down to the stream where we can cool down in the heat of the afternoon.

We’ve taken a few little exploratory strolls around the other buildings and ruins of our little hamlet. As well as our house and Tarje and Signe’s house, there’s quite a good barn between them then a small assortment of old houses, barns and ruins close by. The house that was most recently inhabited full-time did have on-grid electricity but has been stood disconnected and abandoned for about 40 years.

Everything that needs doing here is hard work to get started but it’s rewarding to see how quickly things change when you work at it. We are still showering with a hosepipe behind a gate, we do the washing up with the hosepipe on the grass and we still don’t have any light bulbs. But progress is being made! We have our tent and a place to cook and eat. We’re harvesting lettuce from the garden and my radishes are almost a good size. I can’t wait until we don’t have to buy veggies any more. Dave keeps saying ‘I thought we were going to work on the house first’, but we do need to make sure we can live comfortably whilst we’re working on it. So, as they keep telling us here poco a poco (little by little) is how things are supposed to be done – and that’s a low stress lifestyle I’m happy to adopt.

-Anna

Tent platform in progress

We’ve been over to the house every weekend for the last month. And Dave has been working remotely as an environmental consultant 3 days a week whist we’re at Richard and Suzanne’s. So it’s been a whirl-wind of driving, carrying, packing and unpacking, working at the house and trying to make progress here without Dave. I have to say, I’m bloody knackered, and I’m sure Dave is too. It will be nice to be in one place for a while once we get back from a week in Blighty at the end of March.

Our wood delivery was due on a Friday three weeks ago and we started the day by carrying some stuff up to the house in the morning mist.

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The start of the track to our village

Then the wood arrived and we spent half a day carrying it into the village with Tarje. Chestnut is so heavy! Tarje had already done this chore several times on his own, so could carry a good bundle. I was struggling along with three boards on my bruised shoulders and my muscles were definitely feeling it by the afternoon. One of our lovely neighbours Tivo was passing when the wood arrived and lent us a rope to drag the largest of the beams that couldn’t be carried easily. The couple that has the field above us were passing on their quad and stopped to chat. After exchanging pleasantries, they enquired “Are you accustomed to working?” Having seen the two of them, easily in their 60’s, shovelling cow shit and tending to the sheep every day, I couldn’t very well tell them that I was accustomed to working. “Well I used to have an office job” I told them, and they puffed out their cheeks, knowing I had my work cut out.

The rest of the weekend was mostly spent digging post holes. We also got over half of the wood treated and I started preparing a garden (so much for being patient until April!).

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Me making garden beds whilst Dave is laying wood out for treatment

Luckily the weather cleared up and it was so hot that I enjoyed a garden hose shower in the afternoon sun without getting goosebumps. Bliss.

The weekend after that one, more post holes followed and we started to test out two of the beams on the posts and rocks. Oh dear. Not only were they not level with each other, they weren’t even level with themselves! Posts had to have their tops sawn off, rocks had to be lifted again to dig them into the ground further and the top slope had to be dug out where the ground was too high to allow the beam to lay flat. So Dave mostly got on with that stuff whilst I started planting a herb garden after our trip to the garden centre.

By the end of the day, his determination rewarded him with being able to screw down two of the three big beams and attach the joists on one side! It felt like real progress to get the drill out and start fixing it together.

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Fixing down the middle beam

Sunday was our first anniversary! We went for a nice dinner on Saturday night then spent Sunday being tourists in our local area, which was wonderful.  We went to see the hermitage, whose crosses on the rocky outcrop can be seen from our field. We went to visit one of the oldest yew trees in Spain, estimated to be at least 1000 years old. And we had lunch at a famous middle-of-nowhere restaurant, which was delicious albeit decidedly un-vegan.

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Walking up to the hermitage

We’re spending this weekend at the house again with view to getting the platform finished (maybe) before heading to the UK for a week, spending a week at Richard and Suzanne’s, then moving to be at the new place all the time!

-Anna

 

 

Working weekends update

We’ve been back to the house about every second weekend. There have been some wet ones – including when my parents were visiting for the first time – and some beautiful sunny ones.  All the hazel catkins are out along the rivers, as well as some of the early fruit tree blossoms.  I think it’s too soon to be calling it Spring just yet, but as the days are getting longer, the sun feels lovely and warm when it decides to come out.

Bramble bashing has continued. Still plenty more of that to do!

We already have a small strawberry patch springing into life because the bundle of little plants Signe bought included too many for their patch. I’d love to be preparing more of the gardens now, but we can only get so much done with our short visits at the moment, so I’m trying to be patient until we live there in April.

Mum and Dad came to visit last week and we all sloshed our way up the hill in the cloud and rain to look at our little house. It was a shame to have our first visitors when there was no view but they loved it anyway and it was great to talk through various reparation ideas together. We also spent some time in Oviedo, our nearest city, which turns out to be lovely, enjoyed some restaurant meals and were treated to some cool new tools in the huge DIY store.

 

After my parents left, we had a bit of a panic that it was only a month before we wanted to have the place set up for temporary living and we hadn’t even decided how we were going to do it yet. So this weekend we got started on the foundations for our tent platform. We measured out the space, ordered the wood from the local wood yard for delivery next week and started moving the corner stones into position. We’re now three stones down with one to go…

Moving the first rock

Moving the second rock

And the third rock – hurray all level so far!

Hopefully we’ll be able to do the last rock and get started on the platform itself next week when the wood arrives.

As we count down to our arrival at the new house, time is ticking for us to get things done at Richard and Suzanne’s place before we leave. We’re still doing the pointing on the big house once a week when Jose Pedro is here with the scaffolding. And when the weather is nice, we’ve been out weeding and sowing some flower seeds in the gardens. The vegetable patch currently only contains a few rows of garlic, but I’ve started some seeds indoors. I was excited to find a patch of lettuces today that are growing by the compost pile – I’d laid down the lettuce seed heads there last summer after collecting them. I’m pretty chuffed with that – my seed saving efforts are paying off already with mid February lettuces that I never even planted! All I had to do today was transplant as many as I could be bothered to dig up, and they will soon be ready for harvesting.

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My zero effort lettuce patch 🙂

Even when we’re over here away from the new house, there are new house jobs to get on with. At the moment we’re planning to order an off-grid solar electricity system with Tarje and Signe so that we’ll be able to power some lights and a washing machine, as well as charge our phones, laptops and batteries for power tools. We’re also looking at getting a solar water heater so that we can have a hot shower! Once all that’s in place, maybe we’ll never bother moving into the actual house.

-Anna

Starting on the house

So, we completed the purchase of the house on the last working day of December 2016 – hurray! I’m pretty chuffed with that outcome because I secretly had ‘before Christmas’ in my head as a milestone for owning a place, and after the way things were looking in October, three days late seems like a pretty big win.

Since then we’ve had two short trips to the house to get started on some jobs. We also had to go to the Catastro to get the borders of our land redrawn. We sat in the office there for 20 minutes, the guy filled in a form and said it would take three months to process but that it might get refused because although our deed says that we bought 500m2 of urban land, there were only 200m2 there originally. He chuckled and said “It’s like you came to the market when I had two apples on my stall. Then I sold you five!” Yes, how amusing.

We’ve started tidying up indoors and out. There is a lot of random crap in our house. Some of it is useful (pitch fork, shower tray, crow bar, arm chairs), some of it less so (brand new electric blanket [yup – electric blanket], old mattresses, cow medicine, mouldy overalls, etc.). There’s also a lot of stuff growing all over our land, house and stone walls. Whilst we do want to grow lots of stuff, I’m not sure a monoculture of brambles is the way forward.

We cleared some very clingy ivy off the house walls. We did lots of bramble bashing. And argued about where to compost the resulting debris. (Still undecided.)

We disturbed a fire salamander whilst digging up brambles! Don’t worry, he was safely relocated to a spade-free hibernation zone.

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Mind the fire salamander!

We found our water supply in the neighbouring field. It definitely needs a new cover. And we might want to get it tested…

Dave and Tarje set about moving some roof tiles around to try and stop the leaks. At least our roof isn’t hard to get up on – you can walk straight onto it from the back of the house!

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A pleasant evening for it too

We built a composting toilet (I say ‘we’ because although this was mostly Dave’s doing, he clearly would have been lost without my very useful comments that were definitely not criticisms of his masterpiece).

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Composting toilet in temporary position, complete with bag of saw dust and bog roll

The main steps to the house were a bit of a death trap of debris and grass. We thought we were in for a long job of attempted dry stone walling, until we dug down and found these already there! Handy.

And every time we’re at the house doing work, we get to pause every now and then to enjoy the views and the company.

-Anna

We’re buying a Spanish property!

About a month ago we decided we wanted to buy this place. Today we signed the contract and paid the deposit! So here’s the story of how we fell in love with an abandoned village in the interior of Asturias…

Mary the estate agent had told us to visit the village and the Danish couple who were living there. We had a few days set aside to travel around Asturias, so we were off to see them. Having passed the last big city about half an hour ago, we were on a winding road following a river in a beautiful valley where the hillsides are adored with the colours of autumn woodland. Little green pastures and red-roofed villages bask in the sun, nestled into nooks in the landscape. The gentle hillsides rise up to exposed rock peaks and occasionally a bigger mountain comes into view in the distance.

We took a small road off to the side and straight away were going steeply uphill, winding our way up and up to almost 800m, passing a few villages on the way. We parked at the edge of a village and stepped out to the sound of cowbells and birds. Here we donned our rucksacks – it’s a bit of a walk from the car park! We headed uphill on a concrete road past a few houses and a yard with free ranging chickens and honking geese, then onto a very steep, rocky track through an avenue of trees between the fields – this track may once have passed for a road if you had a laden donkey instead of a car. Ten minutes from the car park and we arrived at the turn-off to the abandoned hamlet. We walked along the grassy track past a few ruins and an uninhabited house to arrive in the middle of the hamlet, where the view opens up.

The little house that’s dug into the hillside at the top of the hamlet is for sale, standing strong but looking a little neglected. It has its own small field behind, currently being grazed by cows, a bit of land for growing vegetables out the front and a small ivy-engulfed stone barn below. On the downhill side of the village, a young Danish couple are in the process of buying one of the other dilapidated houses, which they are busy trying to make winter-proof. The whole hamlet is a little overgrown with grasses and brambles, and pollarded trees with light green leaves that scatter dappled light and flutters of colour in the breeze.

The views in every direction are wonderful – we are in the mountains after all. The hillside opposite is a complete blanket of treetops undulating with the shape of the land and its river valleys. Beyond that, the summit of a mountain emerges, adding some drama to the otherwise serene and peaceful scene. There are no cables to be seen, no roads to be heard.

The Danish couple Tarje and Signe and their baby Roar welcomed us in the autumn sunshine and we ate together outside. They had been camping by their house and we set up our tent in front of the other house. We looked around the buildings and the land together and chatted about our plans for the future. At one point we were standing in the field taking in the scenery when a bright shooting star scattered sparks across the sky so bright that you could see them even though it was sunny! We joked that it could either be a good sign or a bad omen depending on what you wanted the universe to be telling you.

That night, in the dark and quiet, Dave and I were too excited to sleep much (and were camping on a bit of an incline), so we got out the tent to look around. It was a clear night and the Milky Way was shining bright. A crescent moon rose over the mountains and owls hooted in the forest. We were pretty much sold. We whispered into the cool air “I could totally live here.” “Yeah, me too!” And we stood there for a while admiring the place and imagining how our lives would continue to unfold.

I have to admit that neither the house nor the land are exactly everything we were looking for – the house is very small (5m x 5m) and the plot of land is smaller and steeper than we’d had in mind. Not to mention the fact that you have to park half a kilometre from the village! But it’s such a perfect place that the list of requirements has been happily forgotten. The location is spectacularly beautiful and remote but still the nearest village with amenities is only 15 minutes away by car, the nearest city less than an hour. We are an hour and a quarter from the airport, from surf beaches and from a little ski area. Hiking is right on the doorstep since we’re 810m up a 1,600m mountain. Climbing and canoeing places are also plentiful. Not that we’ll have time for outdoor activities whilst we’re making our off-grid house liveable and planting a food forest!

One of the deciding factors is that Tarje and Signe bought the other house in the village. They have changed the whole feel of the place – it’s not an isolated abandoned village any more, but the makings of a community.

We can’t wait to get started on everything! The house is basically some stone walls with a timber frame and tiles on top. So it needs re-roofing, insulating, and everything that we want to have inside it needs to be added – stairs, internal walls, windows, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, heating, off-grid plumbing and electrics. I think we’ve got our work cut out next summer!

This winter we’re continuing to live in an apartment at Richard and Suzanne’s place. We’re helping them with some winter jobs and in our spare time are planning what we want to do at the house. We will be spending odd weekends over at the new house to do a few jobs but there is only so much we can do before the weather gets more predictably nice. We were there last week and spent two nights camping inside the house inside a tent because the roof leaks! It was raining the entire time except when it stopped raining to snow a little. And it was freeeeezing! Maybe a wood burner is one of the first things to install, after a composting toilet.

So there we are. We started our married life this year camping in the wintery chill of early March, cooking porridge on a camping stove in the frosty Highlands. And we’re ending the year in much the same way except this time outside our own little house in the highlands of Asturias. I feel like it’s where we were destined to end up. And with that sentence, our lives as off-grid hippies may have already begun.

-Anna

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Our future house

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View from our field above the house (closest roof is ours, furthest the Danes’ house)

Autumn update

It certainly isn’t summer any more! The sun comes up at 9:15 and it’s dark by 6:30pm. The forest is a mixture of autumnal deciduous trees and evergreen oaks scattered in their yellow confetti.

In spite of the chill in the air, only this week have we eaten the last of our ripe tomatoes, chillies, melons and baby courgettes from the garden – not bad going for mid November.

Most of the vegetable patch is bare and sad-looking now. I have planted some winter stuff but we’ve had a few unseasonable frosts that are hampering success.

Even though the garden is almost empty there’s lots of work to be done. Dave has been glued to his computer the last few weeks doing consultancy work so I’ve been enjoying free rein in the garden, experimenting with techniques I’ve read about. I’ve been pulling up old plants, mulching the vegetable beds, feeding the compost heap and dealing with the produce – drying chillies, onions and nuts, curing pumpkins, making apple sauce and preserves. I’ve spent all day today making 3kg of chutney (although that did also involve a trip to the shops and a broken down car).

We were away in the UK for a month and we’ve been back for a month and our car is still at the garage where we left it. The plan was for it to get registered in Spain, but so far that’s not working out very speedily. In the meantime we are borrowing an old Seat from the garage with incredible fuel economy, so we can’t really complain. Except that it is also back in the garage having been towed away this afternoon because it wouldn’t start.

If we have a car again by Tuesday we will be heading back to Asturias for our third viewing of a property that… we totally want to buy! If all goes well and we pay the deposit, I will excitedly tell you all about it! Watch this space…

– Anna

End of summer review

So we’ve been staying at Olmares with Richard and Suzanne for a bit over 3 months. Now we’re on our way back to the UK for about a month – a long time to be away from the veg patch!

It’s been a pretty amazing summer. We’ve hardly achieved any of the things we had planned to do, but I don’t feel bad about it. We’ve learned a bit about growing food, helped around the gardens, got to know the area a little and picked up a smattering of Spanish.

I’m not sure we’re any closer to buying a place of our own or getting our project started, but we’ve got a pretty clear vision of how it’s going to work now. Months of browsing the internet and learning about permaculture and building techniques have shown us the kinds of things that are possible with a lot of hard work and a good idea of what you want.

Yesterday we did an epic tour of Asturias with Mary the estate agent. Asturias is the county to the west of where we’re staying. It is very different from the Picos de Europa mountains, but beautiful in its own right. Asturias is a mountainous region with lots of native broadleaf woodland dotted with small pastures and red-roofed villages nestled in the rolling hillsides. One of the pieces of land we went to see is a possibility – with any luck it will still be on the market when we return and we can go for a second viewing.

There are still a lot of hurdles to cross – registering our car in Spain, applying for residency and buying a property to name a few! And of course once all of the tedious bureaucracy is over and we have a place to call home, we will only be at the very beginning of the next chapter. But that’s one I’m looking forward to a lot.

Here are some of my favourite memories from the summer (lots of them are food!)…

The huerta (veg patch)

Part of our big plan is to produce a lot of our own food, and if we end up hosting guests, producing enough to provide tasty dishes for them too. The reason for this is that we believe that the way food production is happening now is unsustainable. Global population is expected to grow to 9.7 billion people by 2050. Meat consumption is increasing as developing nations become richer and aspire (in some cases) to western diets. We don’t think the world can cope with that!

We think that the diet of the future is going to have to be mostly vegetarian, and that, where possible, we should be using the land we currently use for livestock to produce locally grown veggies.

Our personal contribution has been to cut our meat and dairy intake, which we started about a year ago. We basically eat meat now when someone else offers us leftovers. Going further, we wanted to reduce our consumption of plastic-packaged, airmile-heavy fruit and veg by growing them at home.

Richard and Suzanne kindly allowed us to use their dormant veg garden, so that was our first major obstacle out of the way. Jose Pedro, the handyman and erstwhile farmer lent us a rotivator (a small plough) to turn over the soil, as well as some other tools, and we were away!

Our first plot was approx. 4m x 6m below an existing but neglected strawberry bed. When we arrived it was all overgrown with weeds. Jose Pedro and I rotivated it, then we threw on a wheelbarrow of rotted cow manure, watered it and left it for a few days for the weed seeds we’d disturbed to germinate. After that we weeded again, hoping that we would have got rid of the worst of the weeds before planting.

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Raking out the rotivated weeds with Jose Pedro and Richard. How good is that view??

I decided that since our plot was on a hill, we should have terraces. Anna wasn’t too bothered with that concept so I dug out the terraces all by myself. I used an azada, a short handled pull-hoe, which is the ubiquitous gardening tool in Spain and Portugal, and once you get used to it, an absolute winner. I assumed my back would be crippled within five minutes of picking it up, but they are actually far superior to spades for all tasks except digging deep holes in my opinion.

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Our initial plot, terraced and prepared for planting

We had four terraces in our first plot. On the top one we planted carrots, broccoli raab (like sprouting broccoli) and turnip greens (you eat the leaves). The carrots were extremely patchy; not all of them germinated, and of the ones that did, we would occasionally find a sad, dried up stem which something had severed from the root. Suzanne tells us this is probably cutworms, it could also be mice. The remaining carrot tops are looking nice and bushy now, and we just harvested our first carrots! They are a bit smaller than supermarket ones, but very tasty! We have more carrot seedlings growing in planters to protect them from predators, and we will plant them out when it gets a little cooler. The turnip greens grew very fast for a few weeks, then went to seed (flowered) so we pulled them up and fed them to the chickens, getting 10% of the energy back in delicious eggs! The greens are a distant memory now, but we think they were very nice fried up in a bit of oil. The broccoli raabs are still growing, the flower spears haven’t developed yet, and if they don’t hurry up we will miss them while we’re back in the UK in September! Lots of things that we didn’t want to flower have done so because of the heat, so I find the broccoli raabs’ reluctance slightly annoying!

The next bed down contains lettuces, onions, basil, chillis and what we thought were ordinary cabbages but were excited to discover the other day are actually romanesco broccoli! The lettuces were awesome for quite a few weeks, we had two big bowls of salad per day from them. Now, lots have gone to seed and others are just going rotten and dying – we think it might be chafer grubs in the soil as we have dug a few out. We are replanting and hoping for an autumn crop!

The onions are brilliant so far. They have required very little maintenance and look like they will give a good crop, although we haven’t tried any yet. The basil went in a bit late, but is absolutely loving the long hot days – it has developed huge leaves which taste amazing! Our two chilli plants are doing well and have produced a lot of very hot fruit, we are just hoping it all ripens before it gets cold at night. The brocollis are just starting to show their heads so we are watching them with baited breath, hoping that they get big enough to eat before something else eats them for us!

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Lettuces, chilli and romanesco brocolli

The second bed contains tomatoes, with more onions and lettuces planted in between. The tomatoes have been relatively high maintenance. We were told to watch out for fungus so we have sprayed them with a copper spray as well as watering them separately from everything else and making sure the sprinkler doesn’t get the leaves wet. Some of the leaves have become diseased and we have had to keep an eye on them and cut off any bad ones. We also spent a lot of time at first pinching out extra stems to stop the plants getting too unruly. For all the hassle though, the tomatoes are delicious – the best we’ve ever had. We have a lot of fruits ripening on the plants now and it looks like we will get a good main crop in a few days.

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Young tomatoes

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Almost ready!

The third bed has beetroots as well as more lettuces and onions. We got purple beetroot seedlings from the market in Potes, which turned out to produce quite bitter roots – they are nice cooked but we can’t eat them raw. Anna also got some golden and albino beetroots from The Real Seed Catalogue which have a much more delicate flavour and have been delicious sliced thinly in salad. They are also a lot lower risk when it comes to staining clothes / furniture!

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Beetroot and onion seedlings

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White beetroot

In the fourth bed we planted five tiny plants which we thought were pumpkins but turned out to be marrows. They grew super fast, quickly covering their own bed and beginning to invade the surrounding ones. They have produced loads of massive marrows, which we now have to find a way to eat, or give away. Apparently the locals feed them to the pigs over winter, but since we are without pigs, we will have to look up some recipes!

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Marrow seedling

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Things developed rapidly

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Marrow! With more encroaching in the background.

A few weeks after planting up our first plot we decided our ambitions were bigger, so we decided to develop the other side of the garden as well. This side was similarly overgrown. The first thing we did was put in some more lettuces, just loosening enough soil to plant the seedlings. They have never done as well as their neighbours on the rotivated side, we aren’t sure if this is because the ground is too compacted or they didn’t get any fertiliser (or both), but we definitely saw a difference. We then planted coriander and a few cucumbers alongside the lettuces, but this time we dug out bigger holes and made sure we mixed in a fair bit of manure to give them a chance. These plants have all done well, the cucumbers are really prolific and the coriander grew very strongly through several harvests before going to seed in the dry weather.

We had been reading about no-dig gardening, which is basically where, instead of digging and turning the soil, you use a thick layer of compost or rotted manure to both kill off underlying weeds and create a bed for planting. Apart from saving you the trouble of digging, this is meant to be good because it allows the underlying soil to retain its structure, along with any beneficial fungi that are in there. We decided to give it a bash so we built two more beds filled to a few inches depth with rotted cow manure and left the underlying soil intact. In went cucumbers, beetroots, more carrots, courgettes, melons, pumpkins and beans. So far everything has been really good. The one issue we had early on was that the manure was too coarse for the seedlings and didn’t hold water very well, so the plants were loose and dried out easily. If we did it again we would use older manure and make sure it was broken up finer. The beans have done really well and we are harvesting every other day at the moment. The cucurbits (melons, courgettes, pumpkins and cucumbers) are all “heavy feeders” and have grown really well; we discovered today even the melons are producing fruit! The beetroots and carrots are a bit smaller and less tasty than their compatriots on the ploughed side; we found out after we’d planted them that carrots don’t do well in very rich soil, producing a lot of leaves and not much root. That has certainly been our experience.

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First bean (of many!)

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Pumpkin nestling in the weeds!

Overall the garden has been a great success for us. Almost everything grew well, and it is extremely satisfying sitting down to a lunch that you produced yourself, especially when it tastes so good!

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A morning’s harvest

We have learned loads about gardening that will inform our future project. The main thing is that anyone can do it given the time and inclination and a bit of investment for tools. The next lesson is that time invested up front pays off later with better crops and less maintenance. We will definitely need to plan more thoroughly for a bigger garden and take into account crop rotations and disease control (since we started from scratch this year we didn’t have to worry about diseases built up in the soil from previous years’ crops).

We weren’t sure how we would take to gardening, but we have both really enjoyed it so far, and we would encourage anyone who is interested to grab a fork (or an azada!) and start cultivating! We would absolutely recommend The Real Seed Catalogue (http://realseeds.co.uk/index.html) to get your seeds. These guys provide an amazing range of seeds, which are all open-pollinated (meaning they are not hybrids and if you want to, you can save the seeds from your crop and plant them next season). They are based in Wales and have also gardened in Spain so they are well-placed to advise on varieties that will grow well in British or Spanish climates.

We have tried to save some of our seeds this year; we have courgettes and pumpkins. We will see how we go, and maybe expand our efforts next season.

By volume, our diet has come largely from the veg garden over the last few weeks. We’ve grown strawberries, beans, broccoli, courgettes, cucumbers, lettuce and other salad crops, coriander, basil, onions, carrots, cabbage, chillis, tomatoes, pumpkins, marrows, beetroots and melons. Richard and Suzanne already had several fruit trees here giving figs, plums, greengages, apples, mulberries, hazelnuts and pears. They also have five chickens which lay too many eggs for them to eat, so we are having some of those too, but before we left the UK we weren’t eating eggs and we could manage fine without them. We didn’t try to grow staples like wheat or chickpeas this season (the learning curve is steep enough already), although we are keen to try sweet potatoes and perhaps chickpeas next year.

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Mulberries and hazelnuts

Fruit and veg production is going to tail off in the coming months, and we are not able to preserve much at the moment, although we have made loads of mulberry and elderberry jam! Anna has just ordered a canner (an expensive pressure cooker) so we will soon be able to preserve loads of other fruit and veg and keep our surplus production for consumption during winter and spring.

We are still buying most of our calories. We buy chickpeas, cereal, flour, bread, beer and wine, margarine, chocolate, citrus fruits and oil as well as salt and spices. We’re nowhere near self-sufficient, and for the effort it would take, we’re not sure we want to be at the moment. What we hope we have done however is massively reduce our carbon footprint and some of our other environmental impacts We are no longer responsible for having lettuces wrapped in plastic and flown in from all over the world. Our biggest victory is cutting out meat. That alone over the last twelve months has apparently saved approx. 2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent between us. In terms of fertiliser, we are very lucky where we are because there are heaps of cow dung going spare all over the place. Of course in our ideal world there wouldn’t be heaps of cow dung everywhere because there would be far fewer cows, but we could use other methods like growing nitrogen fixing ground cover like borage or clover.

This season was about testing out our ideas and seeing if we could hack the work involved. We have been extremely fortunate in that Richard and Suzanne have provided so much input and advice, as well as providing us accommodation, land and tools in return for our willing but haphazard assistance with their own gardens and odd-jobs. Jose Pedro has also been really nice, lending us tools, helping out and giving useful advice. We really appreciate how lucky we are to have made such good friends! We still have loads of challenges ahead: finding and buying a property, navigating the planning permission minefield, working out a viable business model and eventually welcoming guests. So much to think about, but at least it’s good to know that the earth will provide if we are willing to put in the work!

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A small selection of produce!

– Dave