Silver linings

It’s been a great week, a glorious week, down here at the cabin in the woods. After a few days of slate grey skies, the sun made a reappearance and suddenly it felt like spring. The children had a four day weekend, I had no weekend English classes, and we relaxed like it was going out of fashion. We sat on the dock in the sunshine, gathered vegetables from our neighbours vegetable patch (they invited us to), and had some visitors over. I wrote a blog post, ready to publish today, all about the sensory beauty of the place – sun on the river, bees in the almond blossoms, the heady aroma of orange blossom. And then this morning happened, and I realised there’s far greater comedy value in mishap and disaster than in everything running smoothly.

It’s Saturday morning so, although the girls and I get a lie-in, I still get up at 8.30 so I have a reasonably leisurely two hours before I teach English in the village. It rained steadily yesterday and through the night and when I get up I realise I need to give myself extra time because we will all have to dress in our wet weather gear for the thirty-minute walk into town. Julian has work as usual, which starts half an hour before my English lesson, so we’re both getting ready at the same time.

We’ve been living on borrowed time for the past week as far as our gas bottles are concerned. The cabin uses butane for two purposes – to heat the shower water and for the two-ring counter-top cooking hob. The two 26.5 litres aluminium bottles have been getting lighter and lighter with each passing day, and it’s been taking longer to boil the kettle – a sure sign we’re low on gas.

Aboard Carina we use gas (from smaller bottles) for our hob, grill and oven. We have three bottles, each of which gives us about a month’s worth of gas for cooking. When two bottles are empty we take them to the hardware store and replace them, so we always have spares and never run out of gas. Our Bohemian friend doesn’t have spares.

I thought the bottle servicing the shower seemed the lighter of the two and I planned that when it ran out I would replace it with the bottle from the kitchen and get a new one for the kitchen (cooking being more of a necessity than showering!). It was unlikely that both would run out of gas at the same time. And yet, this morning, as Julian and I start getting ready for our respective jobs – showers for us, the morning cups of tea we can’t live without, breakfast for everyone – this is exactly what happens.

‘I’ll take the first shower’, I say to Julian, who is on the phone to one of his parents. I strip off, turn on the shower and wait for the water to take its usual 30 or 40 seconds to heat up. The time goes by, 30 seconds, 40 seconds, a minute, and the water remains freezing cold. ‘Julian’, I call. ‘We’re out of gas.’ He immediately jumps into action, temporarily (as he thinks) bringing the kitchen bottle outside so we can both have hot showers before then bringing it back inside so I can make breakfast. (I have to say, it is one of those mornings when I need to shop, so the breakfast choices are limited – eggy bread, porridge or pancakes – all requiring cooking).

With the kitchen bottle now attached to the shower I try the water again. Still it won’t warm up. ‘Julian’, I cry again, and again he jumps to action. ‘You need to light the pilot light’. He calls for me to bring him a box of matches, so with a towel wrapped around me I go outside into the mud-covered garden (it’s been raining all night, remember, and is still raining). We both peer at the pilot light and cannot figure out how it works or where to light it. I traipse back into the bedroom, muddy-footed, giving up on a shower, while Julian returns the gas bottle to the kitchen. I haven’t had a shower in two days, and I’m teaching English. I can’t stand having a cold shower when I’m already feeling pretty chilly. I still have the key to the shower block by the Sanlúcar pontoon, so I’ll pack my towel and shower gel and shower there. Julian can do the same at the public showers in Alcoutím.

I quickly get dressed and tell the girls to get dressed, then set about making breakfast. Nothing happens when I try to light the ring under the kettle. ‘Julian’, I call, and he comes running, getting increasingly exasperated with me (and who can blame him). ‘You haven’t connected the bottle properly’. He removes it and reattaches it, correctly this time. He lights the ring, it fizzles sadly for a second or two and dies. It turns out this bottle is empty too.

So here are my problems. I need a shower. I need breakfast. I need to get the empty gas bottles upriver to Sanlúcar so I can replace them for new ones. It is 9.30 and the river is currently on flood – flowing upriver – but in less than half an hour the tide will turn and I will have the current against me. I haven’t yet figured out how to use the outboard on our friend’s dinghy, so I only use his boat to get to or from town when I have the current with me and can row.

‘Girls, we’re going now, NOW’, I yell, as Julian disconnects the gas bottle in the kitchen, carries the two bottles down to the dock and loads them onto the dinghy. It’s drizzling now and we all dress in full wet weather gear. While we set off up towards Sanlúcar in our friend’s dinghy, Julian sets off for Alcoutím in our much smaller rubber dinghy (too small to haul those gas bottles). When he sees my pathetic rowing in the, by now, almost slack water, he turns around and takes the painter (the rope) and tows us upriver, our tiny rubber tender towing the much bigger and heavily laden wooden dinghy we’re in.

Well, that’s the worst part over, I tell myself, as I tie up on the pontoon and head off to take a shower. Clean and more calm, I walk with the girls to the Chiringuito for coffee, hot chocolate and toast with jam. The Chiringuito is also where I have my lesson (I teach one of the bar staff) and where I can replace the gas bottles. I tell Fran, the head barman, that I want to replace two gas bottles and he informs me that the Chiringuito doesn’t stock that brand. Cepsa, the brand of bottle I have, is delivered to the village once a week – on Wednesdays – and I won’t be able to replace my bottles until then.

Aaaaahhhhhhhhh. What am I to do? Well, right now I cannot do anything, because I have a lesson to teach. While I’m encouraging my wonderful student to tell me all about her recent trip to London, my mind is wandering, wondering how I’ll get around this problem of not being able to get gas until Wednesday. Surely someone in the village will have a spare bottle they can loan me until then. But how do I find out who uses that brand of gas?

By the time my class ends, Steve and Lynne, a lovely English couple who frequent the Chiringuito, have arrived in. I decide to start with them, and ask if they use or know of anyone who uses that gas. ‘Don’t worry luv’, Steve tells me, ‘Lynnie and I will drive to Villablanca and get your bottles replaced’. My saviours! They finish their drinks, and while they walk home to get their car, I bring the empty bottles up from the boat. While Steve and Lynne are in Villablanca I have time to shop for food and bring the girls to their friend’s house, where they are having a pizza and board games party. I arrive back down to the pontoon just as Steve and Lynne’s car pulls up.

I am so thankful to them. ‘Don’t worry. Settle up later luv’, Lynne tells me, as Steve loads the two new bottles into the dinghy. I have the tide with me, so decide to bring them back to the cabin now. With all the rain overnight, the dinghy is already lying low in the water, at least two inches of water in her. Now Steve adds the heavy gas bottles and I add my shopping, and I precariously set off downriver, the boat creaking like it’s never done before, and constantly veering towards the Spanish bank of the river, so that I have to work extra hard to keep her in a straight line.

Once I get back to the dock, I have to haul the bottles out and up to the house. I take one up onto land, go back for the other. Take the first up the steps that lead to the first cabin, go back for the other. Take the first one half way up the garden to a bend in the path, go back for the other. Take the first one to the bathroom, go back for the other and take it to the kitchen. Sweat rolls down my face as I try to attach them. I try the kitchen one first, and realise why Julian had trouble with it this morning. Connecting our gas bottles aboard Carina is so easy (or perhaps we are just used to is) and I curse and struggle and strain to connect this one. I give up and go to the bathroom. This gas bottle is easier to attach and I now understand what I need to do to attach the one in the kitchen. There is also no need to light the pilot light. I test the shower and have hot water in seconds. I return to the kitchen and after a few more attempts manage to connect the nozzle and soon the kettle is boiling and I am making a delicious cup of strong tea.

Then it’s time to walk back into town to collect the girls from their friend’s house. All of this walking and rowing and lugging gas bottles in and out of boats and up steep slopes and gathering and carrying and chopping firewood is like some fitness boot camp. And it has the same results. Since moving in here three weeks ago I’ve dropped a dress size. Clothes that were tight a month ago now fit me, and clothes that fit me a month ago are now loose. And that is certainly a silver lining to this cabin in the woods lifestyle!

Not quite Thoreau

Some weeks ago, a rather Bohemian acquaintance of ours asked if we’d house- and dog-sit for him. Our friend had to go to the UK for medical treatment and anticipated being away for up to a month. ‘Sure’, I nonchalantly agreed, without giving too much (indeed any) thought to the logistics of the thing. I wrote the start date in my diary and thought only of what fun it would be to live for a while in such an idyllic location.

Our friend lives downriver from Sanlúcar on a picturesque piece of land, with the river in front of the property and the Guadiana Way, an old goat track turned hiking trail, behind. There is no road access to the property, so getting to and from town is either a 25-minute walk along the beautiful hiking trail or a 5 to 15 minute dinghy ride (depending on the tide) up the river.

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The old shepherd’s hut transformed into kitchen, bedroom and bathroom

Being an artist, a musician and somewhat of a free spirit, our friend’s plans for departure were loose and ever-changing. I walked down the goat track on Monday, the day before we were due to move in, so he could show me what I needed to know to take care of and live in the place – where, when and how to feed the dog, how to check and replace the battery acid in the batteries connected to the solar panels, how to use the water pump and washing machine. It was a bright sunny morning and the place was filled with possibility – the orange and lemon trees heavy with fruit, the almond tress just coming into blossom, the opportunities for the girls to have a new place for adventures, and the inspiration I would soak up for the new magazine article I was about to start writing.

The dog, Chester the Chicken Molester, a little Jack Russelly type thing, wasn’t there when I visited. He’d gone to town in search of Claudia, the 19-year old bitch with whom he is in love and who falls over every time Chester, or any other dog, mounts her (she’s such a stalwart). His owner didn’t seem too concerned at Chester’s absence, and said it was a regular occurrence.

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Chester enduring the shower cap Katie dressed him up in.

By the time I was ready to leave, our friend had decided he wouldn’t now depart until Wednesday. That was fine by me, as we planned on moving Carina off her berth on the pontoon and onto anchor in the river in front of the house on Wednesday, Julian’s day off. On Tuesday night our friend postponed his departure yet again, this time until Friday. Whenever I mentioned our plans to friends, they rolled their eyes and told me how sorry they felt for me, given our friend’s free-spirited approach to life, the dog’s fondness for Claudia and the fact that heavy rain was forecast for the next four days.

On Wednesday we moved Carina downriver, and on Thursday night, as the girls and I crossed the Guadiana from Sanlúcar to Alcoutim in the dinghy after dark, to collect Julian from work, who should we meet crossing in the other direction but our friend and his dog. ‘I have to go right now’, he told me, and explained the unforeseen circumstances that meant he had to leave right this minute, in the pitch dark. I took it all in my stride, and after some convoluted manoeuvres, our friend was on the Sanlúcar side of the river, and the four of us, with Chester the Chicken Molester, our dinghy and our friend’s boat, on the Alcoutim side of the river.

By now it was 8pm and we faced the prospect of our first night in a house we had never stayed in before. Now, bear in mind, our friend is a Bohemian, an artist, a musician, so the things many of the rest of us take for granted just don’t enter our friend’s (often up in the clouds) head. He and I have, ahem, somewhat different standards of hygiene, and I am somewhat more partial to artificial lighting than he is.

We rowed downriver on the ebb, me, the girls and Chester in our friend’s boat, and Julian in our dinghy. Before going ashore we stopped off at Carina so I could quickly pick up some food for dinner and breakfast, our toothbrushes and a few other bits and pieces to see us through the night and next morning. Once ashore, we stumbled up the rickety landing stage and up the dirt path, to the part of the house where we intended to spend the night. The wood burning stove was alight in the bedroom, so at least we had a warm place to sleep.

‘What an adventure’ I tried to tell myself, as I set about making supper in a poorly provisioned and decidedly messy kitchen, my heart sinking when I realised I had forgotten to bring teabags from the boat. There was nowhere for Julian to sleep, so once he had seen us settled in, he returned to Carina for the night.

Our friend had told me of the snake that lives in the rafters in the kitchen and I imagined all the creepies and crawlies and rodents that might be lurking in this indoors/outdoors house, and was thankful to have the girls with me so I could put on fake bravery. I was also glad of Chester. Chester slept on the end of the bed for the night and when he woke me up at 7.20 next morning whining to be let out, I knew it was time to get up, despite the impenetrable darkness that made it feel as though it was still the middle of the night.

I quickly got dressed and went outside to go to the kitchen, which is situated in a different building to the bedroom. Chester was gone! I walked the girls to school along the trail and found Chester sitting outside the house of his lady love. I brought him home and spent the morning cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom and rowing over to Carina to pick up more provisions (TEA!). At some point mid-morning Chester was sitting in the sun, dozing. Five minute later, he was gone. Grrrr. Back in along the trail I walked to collect the girls from school and to once again retrieve Chester from outside the house of his girlfriend.

Just as school ended, the rain started. For the rest of the weekend it rained and rained and rained, torrentially and Biblically at times, with thunder rumbling and lightning lighting up the sky. The joys of living in the wilds were suddenly not so obvious. All weekend I struggled to keep my cool, at times losing my temper with the kids, when really I was losing my temper with this house, its owner and its love-struck dog.

On Friday afternoon I set about cleaning the bedroom and bathroom and getting the fire in the stove going again. Now, I grew up in a house with three turf fires, so lighting fires is no problem to me…usually. It’s only a problem when there are no implements, instruments or tools for (a) cutting the wood to size, (b) cleaning out the ashes, (c) raking the ashes and moving the burning wood around in the fire. On top of everything else, it was raining and what wood there was, was lying down on the landing stage, soaking wet. ‘I hate this. I want to go home to Carina’, I grumbled, as I fumbled around in the dark bedroom (in the middle of the day with the light on) trying to find my head torch which I had mislaid the night before. (Oh the irony of losing my head torch in the dark).

But necessity, of course, is the mother of all invention, and by Saturday evening I had improvised methods for (a) cutting the wood to size, (b) cleaning out the ashes, and (c) raking the ashes and moving the burning wood around in the fire. I sent the girls off in their raincoats and rubber boots to find firewood and they came back with bundles of damp branches and twigs, which we dried out in front of the now-lit fires.

Julian remained on the boat on Friday night, as I still hadn’t sorted out sleeping accommodation for him. While the girls and I slept a bit squished in the bedroom, I planned to put Julian in the artist’s studio, 50 yards away on the other side of the plot of land. The studio was filthy and dusty, so Saturday was spent changing bedding on the rather comfy bed in there, sweeping and tidying, and transforming the place into a comfy living room come bedroom, where we could all relax and play and eat in front of the wood burning stove.

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The studio – Wendy house by day, Julian’s private domain by night!

On Saturday morning Chester disappeared again as soon as he was let out in the morning (despite, this time, wearing his electric dog collar – it turns out the electric fence doesn’t run all the way around the property and Chester had sniffed out the gaps). Once the studio was ship shape, and during a brief gap in the rain, the girls and I wandered up the trail and into town to once again find Chester sitting outside the house of his love, this time soaked to the skin and looking rather sorry for himself.

That’s it, I said to myself. The electric collar clearly didn’t work, so the next step was to keep Chester on a long lead all the time, unless he was inside one of the buildings on the property. His owner had told me to do so, and has a long rope for the purpose. All was going well on Sunday morning. We even had some brief moments of sunshine in between the downpours. Lily and Katie played down in the studio – which has its own outside roofed bar and barbecue area – enjoying have their own giant Wendy house to play in. At some point in late morning, Katie felt sorry for poor old Chester on his long lead, and decided to free him so he could come play in the Wendy house (Chester is not a playing sort of dog!). Five minutes later he was gone again, and five minutes after that the heavens opened and it rained torrentially until the early hours of Monday morning. I knew where Chester had gone, and I wasn’t too worried about him, so decided not to go pick him up until Monday morning when I walked the girls to school.

For the rest of Sunday we kept warm in the studio, the girls doing art while I read and wrote, and then carried a big pot of stew down from the kitchen which stayed warm on the stove. Chester didn’t know what he was missing, and all for what? A girlfriend who puts out for any and every dog who comes her way! Silly Chester!

On Monday morning Chester was, of course, where I expected he would be, feeling sorry for himself, cold and hungry. I brought him home, and he hasn’t been back into town unaccompanied since. The rain eased on Monday and the sun has been out each day since.

It’s been an interesting introduction to life on the land. In our cabin(s) in the woods I have been torn between the romance of Henry Thoreau’s Walden and being really bloody annoyed with the realities of moving into someone else’s home in the rain and cold. I loved the place and five minutes later I hated the place. I was warm and cosy by the fire, or I was wet and dirty trying to light the fire. I had all that I needed and I had nothing that I needed!

That was a week ago, and we’ve nicely settled in now and are enjoying life in our little Walden de Guadiana. We’ve had guests around for supper, we’ve picked oranges, we’ve enjoyed breath-taking star-filled night skies, and Chester and I have developed a grudging fondness for each other! Expect more positive blog posts to follow!

It’s more than food for free

Sturdy walking shoes? Check. Long-sleeved shirt and heavy trousers? Check. Work gloves? Check. Sharp knife? Check. It’s time to go asparagus hunting!

It’s that time of year again, when tender young asparagus shoots are to be found on steep overgrown slopes up and down the river. Julian had a rare Saturday off work yesterday and once the sun had burned through the mist along the river, the four of us set off.

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Lily with the first few shoots

If you think foraging is all about putting free food on your plate, you’re sorely mistaken. Just as Jaws isn’t really a film about a shark and hunting isn’t all about the kill, foraging isn’t all about the end product – food for free. Sure, the wild spinach, alexanders, asparagus, oranges and lemons that have been gracing our table recently have been marvellous to eat. They’re delicious, free of nasty chemicals or additives (or as much as anything in the wild can be), and they cost nothing. But foraging for food is about a whole lot more than the end product.

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Taking a break by the well and orange grove

We set out early yesterday afternoon, walking north along the old goat track on the Spanish side of the river. Our senses were caressed, challenged and enriched by the landscape we walked through. We stopped to bathe in the sound of bees buzzing loudly as they gathered nectar from flowering rosemary bushes (one of the few plants flowering at this time of year). Birdsong filled the air. Winter flowers dotted the sides of the trail and the occasional open glade was peppered with the white and yellow chamomile that filled my nose with sweet aroma when I bent down to identify them by scent. Poisonous but colourful mushrooms lined the path, which we stopped often to admire. We picked oranges and drank from a well, and the sun shone from a clear blue January sky and by late afternoon a gibbous moon was already high in the sky to the east.

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Julian ahead on the trail

We walked up hills and down hills, through bright sunshine and dank shade, hearts and breaths racing at the exertion, feet slipping on damp rocks, striding out across hilltops. From the tops of hills we caught occasional glimpses of the river winding its way through the valley below, a brown ribbon through a landscape turned green and lush from December rains.

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A glimpse of the river

Some foraging is easy. Alexanders, spinach and fennel grow along the sides of the path. Gathering them is like picking flowers. Oranges, figs and plums require height and/or ingenuity (memories of gathering apples from the vantage point of Julian’s shoulders in autumn come to mind), and oranges have occasional but nasty thorns to avoid.

Asparagus don’t give themselves up so easily. Around here, the larger and more productive plants are to be found up steep rocky slopes, strewn with thorny bushes. The asparagus plant itself is thorny as hell, and it’s hard to believe that such a delicate shoot (the part we eat), if left to grow, develops into a thorny mass that could well surround Sleeping Beauty’s palace. Hence the need for long sleeves, heavy duty trousers and gloves. To get to the succulent shoots necessitates climbing the slopes, searching through masses of thorns then plunging hands into the middle to cut a single, or at most two, shoots from each plant. It’s hard work, all that scrambling and searching, with a knife in one hand and a few delicate and precious shoots in the other. But it’s fun too, not to mention good exercise. We certainly exert more energy from gathering the asparagus than we gain from eating them.

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Up the hillside he goes

We stopped and searched and gathered along slopes for an hour, gradually making our way to a patch where Julian had been successful last year, where a stream ran through the bottom of the valley. The girls removed their shoes and socks, rolled up their trouser legs and dipped their tired feet in the chilly water. When I tired of foraging, I sat on the bank of the stream, while Julian carried on foraging and the children ran around, feet and bottoms wet, hands covered in soil, picking chamomile flowers.

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First dip of the year

By the time we got home, three hours after setting out, we were tired and dirty, but with our spirits soaring from all we had seen and done, our bodies and minds enriched and enlivened from our immersion in the landscape.

And then? Steamed asparagus shoots to accompany our roast chicken for supper and and then for breakfast with poached eggs on toast this morning. Food for free? That’s merely the end product.

Orange grove

On the spur of the moment we walk north on the Spanish side of the river, along the old goat track now marked for walkers. It is a walk we have both done before, alone, together, with the children, walking just for walking’s sake or walking to visit friends who live upriver.

The path is uneven, at times laid down with rough stones, meandering up and down the hills that line the river, steep rock walls on one side, the land falling sharply away to the river on the other. It is a warm morning and soon I stop to remove my fleece top and tie it around my waist. We walk fast, stretching out our legs, our heart rates quickening, uphill climbs rendering us breathless, sweat on our brows and trickling down our backs. By the time we cross the dry creek we are thirsty from our exertions.

Up the other side of the creek we climb over the sheep fence to get back on the trail. The old whitewashed well stands in front of a grove of orange trees. The trees are heavy with fruit and the ground is littered with fallen oranges. The air is heady with the rich fragrance of the white orange blossoms.

I reach for the metal bucket sitting on top of the well and lower it by its thick rope into the water, watching it fall into the dark pool below. I pull the bucket up, half full of water. We cup our hands and slake our thirst on the delicious cool clear water. Water runs down our chins, wetting our t-shirts and wrists. We laugh at the satisfaction and joy we feel from this simple and timeless act.

Julian plucks an orange from the tree, rips it open and gives me half. Despite its small size and the number of pips inside, it is unbelievably sweet and juicy. We each pluck one more, two, three, gorging on the juicy flesh of these spectacular fruits. My chin is sticky, and my hands and wrists. I eat six oranges, one straight after the other, feeling wild and alive.

We wash our hands and faces in the water from the bucket, take another draught, and carry on walking, our connection to the land somehow stronger for its having fed us and quenched our thirst.

Wildflowers

On geography field trips to New York, my colleague Henry Buller exhorted our students to look up, to raise their gaze and take in the splendour above street level. So much of what is great about Manhattan is upwards – the magnificent architecture, the iconic facades, the murals, the life of a city built upwards and upwards. Neck craned and an upward gaze, that’s the way to take in Manhattan.

If I was to have visitors to the Rio Guadiana at this time of year my advice would be the opposite. Look down. Focus on the ground. In fact, get down on the ground. Draw your attention into the minute grandeur of the riotous life at your feet.

In The Wild Places, Robert MacFarlane eloquently describes the miniscule universes of floral life in the grykes in the limestone pavements of The Burren in Co. Clare in Ireland. He describes how his attention was drawn ever down, and the closer he looked, the more tiny splendour was revealed – profuse ecosystems of Arctic and Alpine flowers, each individual flower so tiny and delicate as to be easily overlooked by the casual passerby. But take the time to get low to the ground, nose to petal, and a diverse world of colour and beauty reveals itself.

Here on the banks of the Guadiana I have been getting down to ground level, knees dusty or muddy, chin on the grass, marvelling at the tiny perfection of the wildflowers that have suddenly burst into a riot of colour. Walking the old goat path south above the river, the land around is a haze of purples, pinks, yellows, oranges, blues. Get a little closer, and each individual flower is tiny perfection, delicate, ethereal, some tinier than a quarter of the nail on my little finger, others big and brash and showy.

Walk upwards from Sanlúcar towards the castle to find entirely different flowers to those a half mile down river. Walk north a half mile and there are different species still, each delicate species with its own niche along the river. They are all beautiful beyond words. And that’s my problem. I lack the words to adequately describe what is around me. Oh to be Robert MacFarlane.

I’m not much of a photographer either, but I’ve captured a sample of some of these delightful flowers on an hour long walk south along the river yesterday. Enjoy.

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Weekend away

After their first two weeks of school, the girls have a three day weekend. Enough of this bustling cross-border metropolis (total population 800), we want some quiet time. On Friday afternoon we restock Carina with fresh food, on Saturday morning we do a load of laundry and refill the water tank, and on Saturday afternoon when the tide turns we pootle five miles upriver.

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Sheep on the river bank

The moored and anchored boats thin out a mile or so upriver from Sanlúcar and Alcoutim. There are about six houses on the five-mile stretch of river and a small hamlet with an impressive ancient-looking mineral works. We round bend after bend in the river, at one bend steep cliffs on one bank and water-edge reed beds on the other, and on the next bend the scene reversed.

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A rare photo of yours truly

We anchor a couple of hundred metres north of where the Rio Vasçao enters the Rio Guadiana on the western, Portuguese, side of the river. Julian lays out the anchor and I cut the engine, taking bearings from a tall tree on the Portuguese bank, a tall tree on the Spanish bank, and a scrubby bush on a hill in Spain. The almost complete absence of human-made sounds fills our ears.

Birds sing in the trees and brush lining the riverbank and an occasional fish leaps from the water, a glint of silver catching the eye as it arches in the sunlight, and a splash as it returns to the water. From somewhere in these echoy hills I hear the hammering of a woodpecker, rapid, like a ruler sprung on a classroom desk.

We hear no cars, no engines, no airplanes, no human voices other than our own. There is the occasional echo of gunshot through the hills. This is hunting country. Wild boar, deer, rabbits and hares are all hunted here for food.

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Beware the river witches

For what’s left of the afternoon the girls and I make Advent calendars. We make a good start, but they will require a couple more days work to be complete, just in time for the start of Advent on Tuesday.

By 7pm it is almost completely dark. It is a clear moonless night, perfect for stargazing. We dress in warm clothes and turn off all Carina’s lights. Lily lies down on the port side of the cockpit, wrapped in a blanket with a cushion under her head. I lie to starboard, with Katie lying on top of me as my blanket. As the darkness deepens more and more stars reveal themselves, the Milky Way flowing richly across the sky. A shooting star catches my eye, and then another which we all, except Lily, see. As if on cue, the tide turns and Carina swings slowly around on her anchor chain, giving us a panoramic view of the entire night sky.

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The mist burning off

The next morning dawns cold and misty, and the sun behind a nearby hill is not yet warming up our patch of river. The tide has turned twice again and the anchor chain is badly snagged on a huge raft of canes. This is one of the more unpleasant and hazardous aspects of life on the river. We’ve become snagged before on massive tree trunks and on rafts of canes and we’ve had friends who’ve had to cut their anchor chain to escape the clutches of a huge tree trunk floating on the river.

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Carina encased

Julian tries to free the anchor but to no avail. He gets in the dinghy and sets about removing the reeds by hand, using a boat hook. I stand on deck, holding the dinghy painter (rope) and walk back and forth, pulling the dinghy astern and forward as Julian instructs, as he drags reeds back behind Carina to where they are free to carry on their journey downriver. It’s two hours of back breaking work – Julian with his hands in the cold dirty water, getting cuts from sharp pieces of reed; I hauling the dinghy back and forth on command. The girls play wonderfully together – which they seem to do when they sense that there’s something really important going on, such as the time we found ourselves in an electrical storm in the middle of the English Channel, or when we ran aground near Falmouth and the engine failed.

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Like unmaking a giant bird’s nest

Finally the anchor is free of the dreaded canes and we take a breather. But it’s such a beautiful day we want to go exploring. Julian makes and packs a lunch and we climb into the dinghy and make for the Rio Vasçao. Julian rows up this splendid little river, with its steep rocky banks and we search hard for the terrapins that live here. Alas today is not our day to see them. But I am thrilled by a kingfisher flying from one side of the river to the other, iridescent wings flashing like sapphires in the sun.

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In search of turtles

It’s almost low tide and Julian rows until the river turns to rocks. We paddle in the shallow water for a while, but the rocks are muddy and we fail to find anywhere to sit to eat lunch, so we climb back aboard the dinghy and eat lunch as we slowly drift back down the river.

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Splish splash

Back on the Guadiana, Julian rows across to the Spanish side of the river, trying to find a place to land so we can go for a walk. But it is a very low spring tide and the banks are muddy. We find a place that has potential, so we return to Carina for a couple of hours while the flood tide sets in, and hope to go ashore later.

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Carina on the Guadiana

The girls and I carry on with the Advent calendars and when we tire of that we get in the dinghy again and return to shore. The tide has now risen sufficiently to allow us to get ashore. But only just. We slither and slide up a muddy bank, all four of us getting utterly mud-covered in the process. I try not to think about how we’re going to get back down that muddy slope when we want to return to the dinghy. We are on the Via Guadiana, a walking trail all along the river, which we frequently walk along its stretch near Sanlúcar.

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Hatching plans on deck

It is beautiful here. Lush trees, including olives and figs, growing beside the steep grey rocks. The path winds up and down along the riverbank, into glades of grass and out along steep banks. There are sheep droppings all along the route and we guess a farmer must herd his sheep along here to get them from one pasture to another. The girls run on ahead, delighting in their energy and their wildness. They disappear from view, around a bend in the trail, one of them always returning to report what they’ve found up ahead.

After half an hour of the girls running and Julian and I walking at a fast pace, we decide to turn around and head back home. Getting back down the slope to the dinghy is as difficult as we suspected and we get even more mud splattered and turn the dinghy into a mud bath. But it’s worth the fun we’ve had ashore.

While Julian cooks dinner I remove the thick caked mud from four pairs of shoes, and I soak our clothes, hoping some of the mud will come off! From climbing aboard, Carina’s stern is mud covered too, and I clean as much as I can. As for the dinghy, I can’t even face it. I decide to leave it until we are back on a pontoon in the next few days.

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North

On Monday morning a mist hangs over the river and the moon is high in the sky to the west. Twelve Iberian magpies fly over my head, from east to west, their long tails making their wings look precariously short. All is utterly still. I stand on the fore deck, cup of coffee in hand, and soak up the peacefulness of this place.

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Morning moon

Next weekend, the girls have four days off school. We’re going to come up this way again.

An educational perambulation

While we still had the hired car we’d used to get from Faro airport back to Carina, we decided to go for a hike a little farther downriver. We drove five miles back to Laranjeiras, parked the car, and we did an 8km circular walk up into the hills on the Portuguese side of the river. The 15th of November and it was already hot at 9am, the late autumn sun shining down from a cloudless blue sky. The walk took us up through the tiny village of Laranjeiras, along steep paths so narrow you could almost touch the old whitewashed houses on either side. On the outskirts of the village we passed an olive grove with tarpaulin spread beneath the trees, catching the falling olives. We were soon out of the village, the winding path taking us past scrubby bushes festooned with dew covered spider webs, higher and higher up through olive and almond groves, higher than the mist that still lingered over the river.

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The path wound down again, through the village of Guerreiros de Rio, where we stopped for coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and pastries, and then the even smaller hamlet of Alamo, where the path once again wound steeply uphill through the houses and into the hilly countryside beyond.

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The path was dusty and rocky, the olive, almond, fig and other trees gnarled and ancient-looking. There was a species of tree that befuddled us. It had acorns growing on it, but didn’t look like any oak tree we’d ever seen before. The leaves were small and shiny, more akin to holly than oak. This tree too was gnarly and twisted in trunk and branch. The one-page leaflet with the trail map soon set us straight. It is the cork oak. The first cork oaks we saw were small, but later we saw bigger, older trees, that had been harvested of their cork coats on the lower parts of their trunks. We thought of the importance of this tree to the economy of the region. How the cork from the oak tree seals the bottles of wine from the vines and the bottle of olive oil and jars of olives from the olive trees. These three trees all looking so old even when they are young are the lifeblood of the region’s culture.

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As we walked along we looked out for rabbits and hares, guessed at the names of trees, and discussed what we knew of the border history of this part of the Portuguese/Spanish border. At the highest point of our climb was a windmill which had been in operation up until the 1940s. We could still see the cog mechanism inside. That got us thinking about food and we got the girls thinking about grain, the uses we have for different grains and how important this windmill would have been to the people of the area when it was in operation.

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Katie wanted a ‘math’s challenge’, something she’d picked up from her Oregon friend Kenna when we’d been out walking a few days earlier. So we challenged her, giving her easy addition at first, and making it more complicated as the morning wore on. Lily didn’t want to be left out, so Julian threw maths problems at her and she surprised us with the speed at which she solved them in her head and with her ability to add and subtract fractions – something we didn’t know she could do.

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We practiced Spanish on each other as we walked along. Because Julian and I know slightly different things and remember slightly different vocabulary, we’re able to challenge each other with what we know. So a game ensued of saying what we knew, making us sentences, all four of us trying to figure out what the others were saying.

This wasn’t the first time that I’ve been struck by how much learning happens when we go walking. My family loves to walk and the stream of consciousness that is inspired by what we see in the world around us as we walk inspires us to do all sorts of learning. Maths is somehow much more fun when practiced in the fresh air than when sitting at the table with books and pencils. Spanish too. Geography, botany, agriculture, history, ecology, meteorology are all around us, and it’s impossible not to learn.

We returned home from our walk exercised in body and mind, hungry for lunch and hungry too for the things we’d discovered we didn’t know – such as Portugal’s area and population, it’s recent history, and a plethora of Spanish words that we decided we simply had to know.

Of hawks and wild places

I’ve retreated into myself in the past few weeks, unable to write, unable to communicate. The time of year, the news stories on the television, morose thoughts about my upcoming surgery. Early September hits me like a train every year. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, the anniversary of my father’s death comes around and knocks me down all over again. It takes time to pull myself out of that hole.

This year my grief has been compounded by images of new born babies, small children, old men fleeing in desperation from their homes and searching for hope in an unsure Europe. I feel helpless in the face of such misery and desperation, yet tearfully grateful for the crowds of welcoming ordinary citizens, opening their hearts and their homes to refugees.

So I retreated inward, grew maudlin and morose, became unbearable to live with. But during my late summer hibernation two books have pulled me through, dragged me back to the world again. Both concern the interactions and engagements between humans and non-humans, wildness and domesticity, love, awe and wonder. And both perhaps not coincidentally are written by fellows of Cambridge colleges, who are friends and who have contributed in one way or another to each others’ books.

H is for Hawk is Helen Macdonald’s powerful and moving story of training a goshawk. She and I were contemporaries at Cambridge and we met a couple of times. We shared an interest in the relationships between humans and animals and I was in awe of her knowledge and passion for falconry, mesmerised by her intellect and eloquence. Little did I know, as we stood drinking a cup of tea in her college garden sharing thoughts on hawks and polar bears, that she was deeply grieving for her father and living a half-wild life with her goshawk Mabel. Her book is an uplifting memoir of how training Mabel helped drag Macdonald out of her grief. But it is also a fascinating account of the history and culture of falconry. By the last page I wanted to walk through fields in search of rabbits and pheasants, to get my skin scratched and my hair messed up from pushing myself through hedges and into woodlands, to feel the weight of a bird of prey on my hand.

From H is for Hawk I picked up Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places. From his Cambridge home MacFarlane sets out to find the wild places of Britain and Ireland, places devoid of humanity and human history. But in his search he comes to the slow realisation that such places do not exist. The wild expanses of the Scottish highlands or the west of Ireland were once filled with people before Clearances and Famine swept human life aside. He discovers that ‘the wild’ cannot be separated from ‘the human’, they exist together. He discovers wildness in a weed pushing up through a crack in a pavement, in a spider web in the corner of a room, in an abandoned factory. The book takes the reader to the far reaches of mainland Scotland and the Isle of Skye, to Anglesey, Dorset, the Burren, even to Essex. In writing the book, he travelled to places I have been to and love and to places I have never heard of. His evocative writing carried my thoughts away from Leamington Spa to these magnificent parts of the archipelago and my soul soared.

By the end of these two books I felt ready to write again, able to communicate again, ready to return to the world. These books helped the dark places in my mind open up to the continuities between past and present, human and other-than-human, life and death.

Next on my list of uplifting books? Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It’s awaiting me on my bedside table right now.