Today in the Village

Today was a day like many others, lived to the rhythm of the village. Jack and I hit the garden early – we were out with wellies on and tools in hand by 9am. A good time to be digging before the full heat of the day beats us back indoors to the cool of our stone-built house.

The only down side to our (relatively) early rising is that none of the other children in the village are up and about yet, so there is no distraction on hand for Jack. While he loves to help (all the while telling me what a good helper he is) the joys of chasing round the garden with Alberto or Pelayo last somewhat longer than those of digging in the earth when Mummy’s attention is more firmly fixed on her ongoing war on weeds than it is on her darling boy.

Soon Alberto’s grandfather, Aurelio, appears. He takes his usual seat beside the hedgerow just outside our garden. This is the spot where most mornings and afternoons he sits to patiently sharpen his scythe before putting it to work in the fields. The tap, tap, tapping of the anvil on the blade beating out a gentle soundtrack to our days.

Aurelio takes us over to the barn to check in on the calf that was born last night. We were lucky enough to have seen it when it was only minutes old – pretty mindblowing stuff for a young child. Jack is delighted to see how sturdy and active it is already.

New-born calf with mum, just moments old

As the barn is directly underneath Alberto’s house our visit to the calf has the added bonus of alerting him to Jack’s presence and he soon descends with his ‘moto’ to commence the serious business of playing. The pair ride their motos round and round the garden performing stunt crashes while I weed furiously, making the most of the childcare assistance.

Beneath the squeals of children playing, the steady thrum of bees buzzing about their business often accompanies us around the village. Today it grows to a crescendo and the realisation dawns on me that one of the hives in the next field is swarming. I unfold myself from the flower bed and look on, agog; warily watching for where they might be headed.

The only other time I witnessed this phenomenon was four years ago when a hive swarmed onto our house. As we watched, horrified, the white walls of the third floor of the house turned black with clustering bees. I remember Aurelio stood next to us at the time, chuckling so hard that tears came. When, moments later, a second swarm came and did the same thing to his house he didn’t laugh quite so much!

Both swarms installed themselves in our respective attic spaces and despite callling the local bee expert he was unable to get them out and into a hive because of difficult access. They never gave us any trouble – the only way we knew they were still there was for the occasional, distant noise of formula 1 racing cars and the heavy, gorgeous scent of honey perfuming the air of our salon at certain times of the year. Then one year they picked up and moved on.

Still, you can understand why I was keen to see them safely re-homed somewhere suitable. The afore-mentioned bee-man had told us cautionary tales of bees taking up residence in much more problematic places than our loft space and I didn’t want to find them swarming in my kitchen this time!

Today they clustered around the trunk of a young tree in the field waiting to decide on a new hive. When swarming like this the bees are dopey and docile and non-aggressive. Still, I took this photo of them using a big lens so I didn’t have to get too close.

The swarm of bees clustered around a tree trunk

Alberto senior dashed off to get his bee-suit and a spare hive. Like some strange arch-bishop he swung his smoker, filled with wood-shavings, to entice them into the hive, placed at the bottom of the tree. Once the first few have entered, he leaves them to complete the house-move themselves in their own time.

Reinforcements arrive. Alberto dons his beekeeper suit.

The children are truly fascinated by both this spectacular display of nature in action and by Alberto’s cool armour-like suit. Once the excitement is over it’s time for their lunch and a much-needed siesta.

The road and fields are empty for a couple of hours, then post-merienda time (afternoon tea, about 5pm) the village stirs again. The children take to the street with their bikes and trucks and toys and the adults return to their outdoor tasks with them.

The cool of the early evening is filled with play and pottering in the garden. Watering with hose and can is a favourite all-family activity. After which, it’s time to water and feed the family again as the day draws to a close.

I’m linking this post up to ‘Country Kids’ over at Coombe Mill. Click the badge below to read about some more outdoors family adventures.

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

A Very British Seaside Holiday

If I’m honest, we’d never have chosen Southsea as a holiday destination. Although it’s on the coast, it’s the heavily populated south coast of England and there isn’t even any surf; which is just plain frustrating. There’s no climbing nearby either. But last week wasn’t supposed to be a holiday, it was all about spending time with Granma. So Southsea bound we were.

Southsea Pier

Southsea Pier – in this quintessentially British seaside town

Paradoxically, having this clear, single purpose for the week was to help convert it into a truly great family holiday. Instead of doing our usual-style UK trip, haring around all over the country trying to visit as many friends and family as possible whilst also fitting in some work and probably some climbing too, this time we stayed put and enjoyed where we were. Of course the glorious weather didn’t hurt either!

It was weather to be outdoors in and outdoors we were – all day every day, apart from the couple of hours in the middle when Jack would have his much-needed siesta.  And I discovered that your classic English seaside town has a lot to offer in the way of family entertainment and outdoors play. (So I guess I’m only a few centuries behind the curve on that!)

Routemaster buses

More iconic British imagery. Routemaster buses wait outside the park to take passengers along the seafront

Most days we walked through the town greens, past the castle and along the front until we reached Canoe Park. We could have spent the entire week in this one place without getting bored. Firstly, it had the Splashpad for water play (see photo for an indication of just how much Jack enjoyed it here.)

The Splashpad in Canoe Park, ringed by parents watching the fun

Behind the splashpad is the zipline. Another photo to tell you more than my mere words ever could.

Enjoying the zip line

From there you walk past (or let’s be realistic you dawdle a goodly while in) the playpark to reach the eponymous lake. We took a large, green, duck-shaped pedalo out for a paddle. While we pedaled, Jack steered; with just a little parental assistance from time to time to avoid imminent danger of crashing.

In the pedalo

Jack concentrates on steering

The model boat enthusiasts showed up while we were on the water and launched their radio-controlled masterpieces to zip around us. From naval tank carriers, to speedboats to old-fashioned pirate ships, they had authentic, seaworthy recreations of them all. Fascinating (the boats and their eccentric owners both!)

Model boats

Model boats on Canoe Lake

To my surprise, the sides of the lake were also lined with lots of families fishing very successfully for crabs. It turns out the lake is linked via an underwater channel to the sea and is positively teeming with crabs. We duly bought ourselves a bucket, net, line and bait in the park cafe and set to catching (and later releasing) some crabs. Great fun!

Catching crabs

Catching crabs at Canoe Lake

And when that got a little tired, Jack decided to convert the net to use on the pigeons! (Unsuccessfully, I might add.)

Catch the pigeon!

Catch the pigeon!

Just 50 metres from Canoe Park is the Portsmouth Natural History Museum, with some interesting wildlife exhibits and, most excitingly, a butterfly room. We were a little early in the season and only nine of them had actually hatched so it wasn’t the experience that Richie remembered from previous visits but we did get to see all the chrysallises lined up and waiting. I guess we’ll just have  to make sure we return another time when the air will be filled with flapping butterfly wings.

Chrysalises in the butterfly room

In the late afternoons, post-siesta, we mostly visited Hot Walls – a rocky beach 5 minutes from Granma’s – perfect for throwing rocks into the water and watching ships sailing into the nearby port. Add to that an excellent Italian ice cream van stationed there and you have another slice of perfection.

Hot Walls

Spending time with Granma at Hot Walls – what it was all about, after all

And to top it all off, mum and dad even got a Saturday night out on their own, at Jamie’s Italian on Gunwharf. What more could you ask for?

Cocktails for Two

Cocktails for Two – Chin chin!

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Teverga and the Senda del Oso

The weekend before last was our first trip away in our motorhome for a long time. So long in fact that when we turned the key in the ignition on the Saturday night the battery failed to turn over. All packed up and nowhere to go. We duly dismounted, clutching our bedding and toothbrushes, put the battery on charge and crossed our fingers for the morning.

Thankfully, our trusty steed did not let us down and we set off the next morning, a little delayed but with undampened spirits despite the showery outlook for the days ahead. Our destination was the valley of Teverga, just over an hour’s drive from here; easily doable as a daytrip but also a great place to spend a few days if you have the opportunity to linger.

The entrance to the valley of the River Trubia and the concejo of Teverga lies just off the motorway, south of Oviedo (the capital city of Asturias), its easy accessibility belying the spectacular natural beauty and wildness of the place. This is an area where wolves and brown bears live in the wild – just half an hour from the city!

The Senda del Oso – a 40km long path through this beautiful valley, and best of all, FLAT!

It’s a great destination for activity break and family getaway alike, with something for everyone. The most popular attraction is the Senda del Oso (Bear Path) a 40 km long walking and bike trail that wends through the impressive limestone valley along the path of a disused mining railway. It cuts through tunnels carved in the rock and is lovely and flat (uniquely so in this mountainous region) – perfect for little legs just starting out on bikes, trikes or push-alongs or for mums and dads towing kiddy trailers. (There are a number of spots to hire bikes along the trail for those who need to.)

A self-propelled toddler = a happy toddler and happy parents!

Jack was happy to spend hours safely zooming along the path on his moto and spotting wild flowers in the hedgerows. Below is a small selection of the flowers found by our budding baby botanist.

There are several picnic spots along the trail, at the grassy foot of crags and alongside the rushing river. If pursestrings permit, there are also a number of excellent, traditional restaurants in the villages that the path passes through. My personal favourites are the pulperia Casa Gallega in Entrago for excellent pulpo (octopus) and lacon (boiled ham) or Casa Aladino in San Martin for more Asturian fare (and an excellent 3 course Menu del Dia, including wine, for 8 Euros).

For us, the Senda also serves as an access point to the plethora of sports climbing crags that surround it. Some soar up directly from the trackside, others are approached steeply uphill.

Climbing in between showers, just above the Senda

Our friends were in the mood for a more strenuous yomp than was suitable for little legs (or adult ones carrying heavy toddler backpacks) so they set off from the Puerta de Marabio to hike some of the peaks surrounding the valley. Thanks to them for these pictures of the views from on high.

As well as wild animals the valley is also home to two Cantabrian brown bears kept in semi-captivity. Rescued as cubs after their mother was shot by a poacher they now live in an enormous enclosure alongside the Senda. At midday everyday they amble along to the edge of the Senda to be fed by their keeper – a must-see, guaranteed to delight children and adults alike.

And we still haven’t even ventured into the Parque de la Prehistoria, at the end of the valley, or the dinosaur museum at the start of it. These fun, interactive museums are our aces in the hole for a rainy day in Teverga. One things for sure, we have many years of visits here ahead of us!
Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Is It Really that Time Already?

The application period for admission into state schools is now open here in Asturias. It’s a snappy 10 days, 10th-20th April, so there’s no time to hang about if, like me, you’re planning to pack your little darling off to school here for the first time come September.

The Spanish government currently offers each child a place in school in the autumn of the year in which they turn 3. It is not actually compulsory to start in formal education until the age of 6 but most parents do take up the offer at the earliest opportunity. Apart from anything else, on a practical level, for working parents, it’s good, free childcare.

It’s a very generous provision, especially when you consider that children from rural areas are also provided with free transport and, in many schools, cooked lunches. Given the current economic situation here and with more cutbacks scheduled to be announced this week, one must wonder how long the Spanish government will continue to foot this particular bill. Already, cuts in nursery places have been announced.

But for now anyway, the admissions applications are being accepted and we’ve already collected our form to fill in and gathered all the requisite accompanying paperwork. All that remains to be done is some photocopying and the purchase of 2 passport sized photos of the would-be pupil. Oh, and some long, drawn-out parental soul-searching.

If Jack is to start school this year, he will be doing so two months before his third birthday. I mean, that’s clearly too young to be starting school, right? That’s practically still a baby. And good luck to anyone who thinks they can get him to sit still for hours on end. Or rather, no, bad luck to them. He is a vibrant bundle of energy that I really just don’t want to see tamed (for the sake of taming) too young.

Having said all that, while the under sixes may be starting at school they are not starting in ‘primaria’. They have their own ‘infantil’ (kindergarten/nursery) teacher and their days are much more play based and less rigidly structured. There is quite probably less ‘taming’ being practiced than I fear.

The school itself is small, with 15 pupils and 2 full time teachers (plus visiting teachers in English, music and P.E. – pretty amazing really!) and Jack already knows a lot of the children. Plus his three best buddies from the village here will all be there – Pelayo will be starting at the same time as him, while Cova and Alberto will be going into their first year of primaria – big kids already.

All of this should make the transition easier for him and, crucially, desired on his part. He is a hugely sociable little boy who just adores being with other children and really enjoys his current two days a week at nursery.

I guess the bottom line is that I still can’t help feeling a (not so) little pang at the thought of it all. Must remember, I’ve only got to hand the application over by the 20th of this month – not my child.


My next door neighbour is called Modesta. She is 89 years old and she lives alone in her little house in our tiny hamlet perched atop a hillside in Asturias, Northern Spain. She doesn’t drive and she has never travelled on a train nor seen a plane. She has never visited Madrid, nor even Covadonga (Asturias’ most famed tourist attraction, forty minutes drive from here). Nowadays, the only time she leaves the village is to visit the doctor five kilometres down the hill.

But none of this is to say that she hasn’t lived. Far from it. Quite apart from living through a bloody civil war and the subsequent dictatorship that still cast a long shadow on the Spain of today, her personal life has been hugely eventful and packed with more than her fair share of pain and suffering.

Modesta today in her kitchen, with some of her daily visitors

Modesta was only thirteen when her parents died. As she says, they died young in years but they were already old – fruit of a tough peasant life. Yesterday, as she showed me a sepia photograph of them, she calculated the number of years she had been an orphan – 76. That’s a long time to feel alone and unprotected in this world.

Modesta never married. But she did have a son. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult life must have been as a single mother in the ultra-conservative 1950s Spain of Franco. This was a place where many unwed mothers were told in hospital that their babies had died at birth and those babies were taken and given (or sold) to wealthy families who were struggling to conceive. Giving birth at home in the countryside, far from any hospital, with a local woman in attendance as midwife, quite possibly saved Modesta from that too cruel fate.

Nor can I fully imagine the deprivations of a life truly lived hand to mouth, scratching a living from the soil of a tiny smallholding. No wonder she often looks at me and shakes her head and mutters words to the effect – ‘You don’t know you’re born.’

As if all that weren’t enough, over twenty years ago, Modesta’s son died at the age of 40 in a car crash that also killed his wife. The couple left behind a 17 year old son, Miguel, but he gradually lost contact with his grandmother, an easy thing to do in those days before phone lines or a tarmacked road had reached this village. Ultimately he disappeared without a trace.

I have pieced together the fragments of Modesta’s sad story over the six years that I have lived here, as my Spanish has improved and my connections with people deepened. So naturally I was delighted yesterday when, on overhearing voices coming from Modesta’s kitchen, I ascertained that it was not her asistente (home-help) but a hitherto unknown great grand-daughter come to visit. Modesta had new-found family!

It turned out that a neighbour had set out to track down Miguel via the internet. Sadly, they discovered that, like his parents before him, Miguel had died tragically young – in a train accident five years ago. But he left behind a family, and his twenty one year old daughter had now made the thousand kilometer journey from Barcelona to meet her great grandmother and to spend a few days with her.

I was thrilled for Modesta and after chatting with her great grand-daughter in the morning I spent much of yesterday composing a blog post in my head – trying (yet failing) to control my schmaltzier tendencies. This really was a ‘telenovela’ (soap opera) unfolding on my doorstep, complete with Hollywood ending. I think I may even have quietly wept at one point, swept away by the lyricism of it all.

At 5pm I went next door, armed with my camera, ready to take a shot of Modesta with her great grand-daughter for posterity (and, let’s be honest, my blog). The girl had left for the evening with a cousin however and Modesta was not in a lyrical mood. ‘That girl doesn’t have the sense she was born with. I don’t know what she’s bothered to come here for’ was her somewhat crotchety take on the situation, leaving my soaring romanticism sorely deflated.

And I wasn’t the only one. Everyone in the village had been terribly excited about this family reunion. They had all come round to introduce themselves and to invite the girl round to their houses for a coffee and a chat. We were all equally disappointed that the visit had failed to have a miraculously uplifting effect on Modesta.

But then I realised that I’d been missing the point all along. The redemption in this tale comes not from a brief family reunion but rather from those who orchestrated it and those who care so much for Modesta and her happiness. It comes from the people she sees every day – us, her neighbours, her ‘familia de verdad’.

For Modesta may live alone but every day her friends and neighbours pop in to visit, to spend some time and to make sure she is okay. In this quiet country place, where for many years thirtysomething Sandra was the youngest resident, there are now six young children all of whom love Modesta unreservedly and who are unreservedly loved by her in return.

My own toddler Jack insists on visiting her several times a day – and not just for the biscuits she always gives him. He loves to bounce on her bed, to throw walnuts around her kitchen and to play hide and seek with her.

Even the cats and dogs of the village know that Modesta’s is a house where they will always receive kindness and affection as well as food. She worries about Dogly (our cheeky, accident-prone greyhound) if by midday he hasn’t scratched at her door in search of his daily biscuit.

As Modesta herself said to me today, ‘la vida da vueltas y vueltas’ – life has many twists and turns and many of the turns that her life has taken have been sad ones. But she knows she is loved and cared for by all her neighbours. And that is no small thing.

Our pussy cat pops in for a visit