Friday, July 30, 2010
Eagles are common in the mountains. You often hear a pinging noise and look up to see a pair circling high above you, on the lookout for anything small that’s moving on the ground. From time to time they dive down to look more closely, and sometimes reappear with a mouse or some such in their beak. Their circles take them slowly across the country, almost imperceptibly drifting towards the higher hills or the more open land.
As well as eagles sensu strictu there are kites, occasionally seen in great clouds but usually in pairs, and hawks of different types, kestrels, buzzards, hobbies etc. They tend to avoid human company, but sometimes you come upon one rising from a low branch of a tree, or even on the ground under a bush as you walk past, and they lazily spread their wings and take to the air.
At the lakes it’s more waterfowl. Ducks of various kinds, including diving ducks of the thin-headed kind that look like small herons (in other circumstances I’d do some proper research and be a bit more precise, and I’d post photos, too, but hey, it’s summer; this is all about how it feels to lie back and watch them, it’s not a zoology class). Talking of herons there are several types that nest in the rushes all around the borders of the quieter lakes in particular, and some are big and thin and long of wing and neck and body, like grey storks. Languid and spare, they fly with efficient parsimony and reach down into the water at intervals to casually pick up a careless fish.
The air is full of creatures and the sounds they make. To sit back and enjoy the show is too easy and too enjoyable not to do.
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Outside the village there is an old, very old, plant consisting of a giant, ancient, open-air oven fed from a great stack of logs which stands nearby, and whose purpose is to extract perfumes from wild flowers, including lavender and rosemary. Those who do it are known as ‘piconeros’ and it has gone on in much the same form for centuries. Somehow they have managed to survive into the age of mass production and automation and they still seem to be making a living out of it. It is they who provide a little of that colour.
In England, in my hometown, there is a spot on the river where a bridge crosses, that has become a little world of its own. The bushes that have grown up on each side, overhanging the water, a couple of willows just beyond the bushes doing the same at a larger scale, the slowness of the current allowing algae to grow plentifully on the rocks on the bed, the water lilies that partly cover the surface and were in flower last month, and the water itself, clear and cool, provide a home for ducks, coots, moorfowl, swans, their various young, for fish small and large, and for insects of all the many kinds that like water.
Among the many kinds of annoying little fly that zizz and buzz and fly into your eyes and mouth, and sting you constantly, are insects of great beauty, mostly butterflies and dragonflies. Unable to capture any successfully with the camera while in England, I have been on the lookout for dragonflies over here when I have been to the nearby lakes, as we do quite regularly. And I’ve been lucky to get a number of photos of a range of colours, from cobalt blue to blood red to black to the pure gold of the chap in the picture above*.
As I said, you have to go out of your way to find colour here in the summer, but it’s worth it when what you find is this.
*I have just worked out how to upload photos on this stick thing without waiting about all afternoon, so there should be more of them from now on.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
La Mancha, down here in the south, is not a bad place to live at all, but it’s very, very dry, and as summer approaches the physical sense of suffocation increases unbearably. Everything dries up and burns, everything turns yellow and brown and the air is stifling.
So in summer we always head north, this year, mot for the first time, to San Vicente de la Barquera, a lovely place, once a fishing village, but now mostly a place for the sort of tourist who appreciates beauty and seafood and doesn’t mind getting wet occasionally. Even so there are plenty of boats of all sizes in the bay, and they aren’t all pleasure boats.
I call it lovely, and it is. In fact we went there the first time because I had seen it several times from the old road, on which you approach on a descent and you suddenly see the mediaeval bridge which you have to cross, the colours of the many and varied boats, and in the middle distance the columns of the main square and the castle and the church up on the hill. This view had always stuck in my memory and so we started going there in summer.
Walking around the port, up to the castle and the mediaeval town, taking in the views from the walls of the whole series of channels and flats which make up the estuary, dining in the Boga Boga (the freshest and finest fish and seafood, and cheaper than it used to be), these are obvious things which anyone who goes there will do. As is going to the beach, a wide ribbon over two miles long, reached by crossing the bridge. There people play racquet and bat games, volleyball, football, they swim, take the sun, surf, run, eat and do whatever takes their fancy.
But as well as its beauty, part of its charm is its position. It’s near Llanes, Comillas, Santillana, a number of small estuaries leading to rocky coves hiding small beaches where you can be completely alone, and which are much more attractive than the typical Mediterranean beaches. A little further away are Santander, Covadonga, Cangas de Onis, Ribadesella, and the mountains of the Picos de Europa.
To go up through the Hermida Pass is to see the beauty of the mountains in a new and different way. On a very narrow road, carved out of the rocks that flank the stream, with the water beside you and roofed over with greenery. And from Potes, another lovely town, you can reach, on foot, Santa María de Piara, Santo Toribio and its satellite shrines, the whole of the Liébana and the mountains, for climbing, walking, taking photographs or whatever you want.
This has been a quick run through what San Vicente has to offer. (The Telegraph had a supplement on the north coast around the 10th of June on the cover of which was a photo of San Vicente. You can probably still dig it up on their site.) Anyway, wherever you go and whatever you choose to do, have a good summer holiday.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
I had never read George Steiner, because I had always assumed him to be one of those idiot lefties, like Shaw or Saramago, for whom the writing of fiction is not an attempt to create something worth reading, some new character or motive or image that has not existed before, an object of some aesthetic value that might give pleasure or intellectual stimulus to others, and satisfaction to the creator, but an exercise is repeating beneath a ham-fisted veil the things they think that, if we hear them often enough, we might start to believe.
It turns out I was wrong. Maybe I had him mixed up with someone else. In any case he is actually a genuine writer, in that he writes because he has something to say, and he knows how to say it. I read ‘Proof and Three Parables’, an admittedly pretentious title for a small collection of short stories, each of which takes an idea, in itself worth expressing, and writes a story around it. This matters, because ideas, clever images, are not themselves stories, and more people know how to come up with a clever image than know how to use it in a story, or any other medium.
Steiner does, and I am delighted to prove myself wrong. I’ll be digging up some more of his stuff.
Monday, July 19, 2010
What to do? Mrs Hickory picked the chicks up from the floor, rearranged the nest as best she could, put the ones inside the other and stuffed it back where it came from. She then called a council. The general opinion was that the mother sparrow would not want to know now that the nest and the chicks had been handled, but that we should wait and see.
Wait and see we did. That evening a junior member of the council reported seeing the mother go behind the blind, but this was not confirmed. The next day, however, the chicks were still alive, and it was the general, if tentative, opinion of the council that they would already be dead if their mother had abandoned them. The tension mounted throughout the day, as inconclusive sightings were reported, but still absolute, indisputable verification was missing.
It was around six o’clock when reliable members of the council, among them your blogger, observed, from both the kitchen and the garden, that the mother sparrow entered the nest without apparent concern, and fed her brood.
Now we hear their chirping, louder and happier every morning, and see their necks and open mouths as they stretch up to be fed. They are mostly mouth at that stage, and their eyes and skin are almost transparent. They grow up quickly and will leave the nest in about another week or ten days, having survived their peri-natal accident without apparent harm.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
The reason the rain has acted so quickly to top them up is that the water table was already so high that there was nowhere else for the water to go. This can be seen most dramatically in the local rivers. One flows past the southern edge of the village, the other flows west a bit further south, and they come together at the beginning of the lakes, which they appear to feed, but in fact they only contribute a tiny fraction of what they hold. Flow is not really the word, and neither is river, as these ‘rivers’ are never normally more than stagnant ditches, and often long stretches of them are completely dry, but now they are definitely streams, which flow, gurgle and babble and have green stuff living in them, and possibly fish, though I have yet to verify this.
The wells, which are important to farmers, as there is very little chance to water the land and many houses are too isolated to have mains water, often dry up, too, but now they are flowing freely, saving a lot of money and time. And an artificial pond, constructed to capture water to allow irrigation of a small farm a few miles away which was once run by my brother-in-law, and which has been dry for years, has water and bird-life once again.
All of which makes the place even more pleasant for spending the summer in. And I don’t watch the television and can’t read the papers, so if there is anything going on in the world that I should get excited about, I shall never know. The overall effect of these things, plus the walking and biking around the area which I do daily, is to produce a deep calm, a profound sense of relaxation.
As I rediscover every summer, the world is quite capable of getting along by itself without my obsessively dissecting and ranting about every little detail. At least, it has so far. Is there anything I should know?
Saturday, July 17, 2010
It turns out to have been built in the 12th C by Roger Bigod, who had very much his own ideas about both politics and architecture. It has no keep, but is just a curtain wall some 30ft high enclosing a couple of acres rather irregularly. Inside are a couple of normal houses, and once there were more, great salons and dining halls and living quarters for the lords and their staff. The towers have no backs, there were just wooden walkways across them to link the ramparts, which could be removed quickly if the enemy got up. It can’t have been a lot of fun waiting up there, watching for signs of an approaching army, knowing that if anything went wrong you would probably be thrown off.
The enemy was usually the King, as the lords of Framlingham over the centuries had a far greater interest in making a fortune out of wool (like many families in the area- Suffolk, as I forgot to mention) than in going to war, and a couple of monarchs were none too happy about this. But the castle held out and in the 16th C was the property of Mary Tudor, in a brief interlude between centuries of ownership by the Howard family. It was here, confident in the loyalty of her tenants, that she waited during the brief reign of the tragic Lady Jane, and here that she began her rule, and from here that she set out to be crowned.
It’s still surrounded by the remains of the bailey and a partial moat, a pleasure meadow linked by a ruined bridge, and a path leads to a mere where the usual fish and birds disport themselves. To the north there was once a great park, dotted with hunting lodges, but it was long ago disparked and is now a forest, gaining in the exchange I would say.
The church is also worth a look. Large, perpendicular, lots of wood, and a monumental Renaissance tomb that has been described as comparable to anything outside Italy. Sorry I can’t upload photos, drawbacks of rural living, but Google should be able to help.
Friday, July 16, 2010
One of the things that strikes you on returning to England in the summer is the attitude to the sun. As soon as the temperature reaches 90ºF (about 32ºC) the press goes mad, predicting the end of the world, children reduced to cinders, en epidemic of heat stroke, and giving dire warnings about drinking lots of water, covering our heads and not jumping into rivers. The late unlamented government of dictatorial (and incompetent) puritans, inevitably tried to take all the pleasure out of summer by having us bury our children under tent fabric and smear ourselves with inch thick gunge, lest we be tempted to relax and enjoy ourselves.
Where I live we have had 90º for a month or so, and it usually start around mid-May, and the world has not ended. Here in the country it is now mid-30’s every afternoon and will soon be higher. It cools down at night, which is one of the reasons we come here, but in the town where I live it is hotter still, and 90º is what you get at three in the morning.
Here on the farm we don’t go out between about 1 and 7PM if we can help it, because it’s asphyxiating heat which can sap you of energy and dehydrate you quickly, especially if the air is humid (not that it often is). And prolonged exposure of the nape of the neck or hairless parts of the head can, occasionally, result in sunstroke. But if we have to, we do. All those who work on the land do, too, and they survive it.
The sun is more important than the heat, in fact. Only an idiot will allow himself to get dehydrated, since a healthy person has to try very hard to reach that state, whatever the weather, and repeatedly ignore the very obvious messages the body is sending out. Serious sunstroke is very rare and is also difficult to achieve unless you ignore the fact that your head is burning.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that you can get sunburnt in England, you can become dehydrated and you can suffer from sunstroke, despite the great differences in temperature between there and here. Perhaps the reason people get so nervous about the sun (apart from the press and the government telling them every evening that they’re lucky to be alive) is that they see it so rarely. When you are used to burning sun almost every day from May to October you learn what it is and what to do about it. It doesn’t frighten you, and the government knows that. They issue warnings, but just to let you know. They are not accompanied by reams of advice and morose Jeremiads.
The message from your friendly blogging hedgehog, then, is this: it is quite possible to enjoy the summer, and I hope you will.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Those of us who have seen this happen were much cheered by the stated intention of the new government to repeal many of these laws in an attempt to make Britain a freer and better place once more, and I, at least was cautiously glad to hear that they intended to ask country- this is a democracy, after all- what laws they wanted them to have a look at, with a view to expunging them from the statute book.
There are little things and big things that need to be reviewed, from smoking bans to 90 day detention and beyond, but top of the list (as reported in the Telegraph, top of more than one list) is delaying the suspension of analogue radio transmissions. This is very depressing, and shows once again that the problem with democracy is the demos; as many politicians and bureaucrats in the EU say quite openly, if we went around listening to the people who pay us to represent them we’d never be able to do what we want. But I’m a democrat, with all the consequences, so if that’s what people are most concerned about, the government should take them seriously.
It’s still depressing, though; we armchair revolutionaries were hoping for something better.
*Down here on the farm blogging is by a stick thingy of very limited speed and volume, so there will be no links and no photos until September.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
We’re back and blogging. The haitus has been occasioned by a few days holiday in the north of Spain (San Vicente de la Barquera. Nice place, more about it later) and a further few days in England (about which also a bit later). Now we’re on the farm, but I almost didn’t get here…
I tend not to read blog entries where the blogger talks about himself in the manner of a self-obsessed newspaper columnist, so this is not really about me, though it uses an incident I was involved in to illustrate a point that is rather more important than I am.
I was stopped at Stansted airport by a security officer who had seen something he didn’t like on the scanner, and searching through my luggage he found, in a forgotten pocket of a bag I was using for some other purpose, and which was buried in a rucksack, a small penknife that I had not known was there. Oh damn, I thought, they’ll confiscate it.* And so they did, but then it got a lot more complicated.
The knife has a blade of about two and a half inches, and I use it in the country for cutting cured meats, slicing tomatoes, picking flowers, cutting string, and a hundred little things for which generations of people, and not just those who enjoy the country, have found it useful to carry a penknife. But not in modern Britain. The colleague of the security officer decided that the blade was lockable, a concept I still haven’t fully understood. All folding knives have some kind of mechanism to stop them closing while in use, and why mine was any different from a Swiss Army knife of the same size, which I was explicitly told was ok, I have no idea. But it seems that Parliament, in response to some thug knifing someone, and at the instigation, one would imagine, of someone who was never a boy scout and has his fruit pre-sliced by the staff, at some point made such things illegal, and they also took the highly illiberal step of removing any possible defence, as I discovered when the police were called.
I had, of course, done nothing wrong. I had neither hurt, nor threatened anybody with the penknife. I had not even known I had it on me and if I had no reason to suspect that such an unremarkable, useful, everyday object was illegal in the land of my birth, which used to be a beacon of freedom and commonsense in a depressingly benighted and totalitarian world. But this is not about me.
None of these facts was disputed by the police, but even so, it’s an ‘offence’. And none of those facts matters in the slightest. They clearly knew I had done nothing wrong; from the way they treated the matter it was quite obvious that to them it was no more than a bit of paperwork, and I was some idiot who’d got himself caught up in the machinery of asinine law. They were more interesting in making sure I didn’t miss the plane than in protecting the world from your humble blogger. They were charming and efficient about it, but they said that they were only letting me go because I didn’t live in the UK. Presumably that’s their letout, even though ignorance of the law isn not supposed to be a defence in this case.
Even though it was made clear that I had no defence, and that there was no point shouting about the despotic stupidity of the law as it stands, it did cross my mind to call a solicitor and see what he said. I could have tried to show that the knife wasn’t ‘lockable’, but in the absence of any clarity of definition, it didn’t look a good bet. I might have been on firmer ground in disputing that I had been in ‘possession’, but I had a plane to catch and a life to lead, so I accepted a caution,** the policeman bade me good-day and called the gate to hold the plane. All very civilized, but stupid and pointless. No purpose has been served by it, everyone involved was well aware of this, and I may yet find that it has consequences at some future time.
*About 15 years ago, on the way to Istanbul from either Gatwick or Heathrow, I forget which, my father had a similar experience, in that he had accidently left a penknife in his hand luggage. Those were more sensible times- it was packaged and checked, and given back to him on arrival.
**Being accused of having an offensive weapon by a man carrying a machine gun is a bit rich, too, but it brings up another point. His machine gun didn’t bother me in the slightest because he didn’t do anything threatening with it and he was clearly a competent and responsible person to be carrying it. As my knife was, in my hands, equally clearly harmless.