Author Archive: Edith

Sagres birdwatching festival

Yellow-browed Warbler, a surprise vagrant from Siberia. (Or, as Husband had it, his birthday present from Putin)

Yellow-browed Warbler, a surprise vagrant from Siberia. (Or, as Husband had it, his birthday present from Putin)



Female Blackcap (close)

Female Blackcap (close)


A row of small white cloth bags hung from hooks next to a VW camper van. The suspended bags shifted and wriggled a little. Inside each was a bird, caught in a net earlier that morning and about to be ringed. We were in Sagres for a weekend of birdwatching, timed to coincide with the peak period of southward migration, and the ringing session was a fascinating event. It enabled you to get close to birds you never normally see more than a fleeting glimpse of, and to learn about them. As many were on migration but hadn’t yet travelled far, they were nicely fat. The ornithologists blew on each bird’s belly to separate the feathers so we could see the white spots of fat dotting the red muscle where the bird had been successful in feeding itself up. The audience of observers had the opportunity to release the birds once they’d been examined, measured, weighed and ringed. Husband held a Sardinian Warbler with infinite care then gently let it free. (I’m typing this in the garden and there’s a Sardinian Warbler in a bush just a few metres away.) My bird, a Whitethroat, got the better of me and was off like a shot before I’d barely registered its few grams of weight in my palm. I must have been too tentative in my hold. Now that I know the technique – even if not yet mastered – I’d have made a better job of freeing that small bird from the grille of the Peugeot a few weeks back. Or at least, in holding the neck gently between two fingers, I would have been able to avoid being stabbed by its ungrateful beak.

We missed the planned release of two eagles, however. They were being kept back for the visit of the Minister for the Environment, a fairly useless fellow, it seems to me, and a waste of good eagles. He paid a visit to Tavira several weeks ago, and Husband and others were there to wave anti-oil flags in his face. When asked by a journalist what he had to say about the plans to turn the Algarve into an oil and gas producer, he said that, well, it didn’t have anything to do with him . . .

Sagres is in Vila do Bispo district, the Cornwall of Portugal. The light there is brilliant. I thought we were spoiled for sunlight here in the eastern Algarve, but there’s an extra quality to the light in the far south-western corner of the land. It’s still the Algarve, only one and a half hours’ away, but so different, with cliffs and surf and a wind that burnishes the skin.

We wore our protest T-shirts, of course. We also wore white wristbands as attendees of the birding event. The combination of matching T-shirts and white plastic wristbands made me wonder if we looked like we’d escaped from somewhere. We none the less got into a number of conversations with other visitors to the town, mostly Germans, who referred to facing similar threats from aggressive fossil-fuel extraction back at home. I don’t know why more British people don’t connect in the same way.

On the morning that we had left home to drive to Sagres, we saw our swallows leave their nest. They were down to three. (I will probably never know if the fourth’s early departure was for Africa or the great hereafter.) The third and last bird is one of life’s cautious types (I sympathise); it edged forward then back, forward then back, its big round eyes and small face framed by the mud of the narrow entrance it didn’t dare to leave. I had to turn my back on it in the end so it could fly off and catch up with the other two. We weren’t surprised when we returned home on the evening of the third day to find the nest silent and empty. We hope they fare well on their journey to West Africa.

Northern Wheatear. Photographed in Sagres but also seen on our own hill. It is passing through

Northern Wheatear. Photographed in Sagres but also seen on our own hill. It is passing through

Stopping in the small town of Vila do Bispo on the way home, and admiring all their protests

Stopping in the small town of Vila do Bispo on the way home and admiring their protest signs (and having so far forgotten to remove the wristband)

Fabulous protest artwork in Vila do Bispo

Fabulous protest artwork in Vila do Bispo, showing a percebes (shellfish) collector getting spattered by an oil-filled sea


Red-rumped Swallows

One of our swallows on the wire

One of our swallows on the wire, looking at me

Another view

Turning away

And flying off

Its companion flying off

Every sunset, four young swallows return to their nest on our veranda. They arrive one by one, not always in close succession. Each swoops under the veranda roof, executes a 180-degree turn in the tight space between front door and tunnel opening, tucks back its wings and delivers itself into the nest. There will be some twittering between the first and second, and by the time the third and fourth arrive there will be a full radio-tuning session, no doubt as they negotiate turning around and aligning themselves in the tight space inside.

If we get close enough to watch them, they show some hesitancy, pull off a few dummy runs, then pour themselves into the nest all the same. They don’t dive for our noses any more; they must have chilled.

The next day, some five to ten minutes before sunrise, they leave, one by one. If it has rained or is cloudy – which has happened a couple of times – they are later getting up and we have a better chance of catching sight, or at least sound, of them. We are as sure as we can be that these four are the offspring, and that the adults spend their nights elsewhere. During the day we have seen all six together in the valley, feeding and flying.

One day soon they will be gone. We’ll miss them, and be keen for their return next year.

Father Christmas has gone, finally. A big and still ongoing tidy-up at Flaviano’s means that Father Christmas, the life-size, Coca-cola Santa with an American accent (yes, it sings), has finally been stashed away in a side room and no longer greets the grocery-shoppers and beer-drinkers. The round lady has been busy with orange paint on the cupboards beneath the counters; I think she is the force behind these improvements. She might also be the force behind the new pet: a tiny, bug-eyed, wobbly legged dog called Lassie. Lassie licked my fingers furiously, spindly legs going every which way, when I bent down to greet her on her blanket. Then I stroked her ribcage and she seemed to hover with delight, all mad shaking suddenly stilled.

Our bread sales go up all the time. The protest T-shirts are selling well too – all proceeds to the cause, of course. Oh, but these are not happy days. Every step forward gets rolled back. Among the latest is that the contracts assigning drilling and fracking rights across some 40 per cent of the Algarve’s land area to Sousa Cintra’s Portfuel have mysteriously been declared legal by the attorney general, even though they did not meet the legal requirements for such contracts. That seemed one of the easiest cases to win, so how come it lost?

And we attended a summer university session in Olhão, as part of a ‘citizens’ legislative initiative’ (funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation – oil money, don’tcha know), about amending the decree law of 1994 which lays Portugal open for oil business. Husband, speaking good Portuguese, stood up to say that seeking to amend this law for the benefit of the environment was like trying to turn the Manual for the Inquisition into a Human Rights Charter. He got a round of applause, but it’s all to no avail. We’re trying to mop up a titanic oil spill with cottonbuds. The law needs to be scrapped, is all.

PS The spectacular bruising on my leg has abated, and the calf muscle is nearly fully repaired. Thanks for asking. How amazing the human body can be at fixing itself.

I know nothing of reptile reproduction, but it seems to be hatching time. First we found a tiny gecko running around the kitchen floor, its head out of all proportion to its body, its tail damp and curled as though it had just come out of the shell. Then Husband rescued this baby lizard from a precarious position by the pool, and released it into the wild garden behind

I know nothing of reptile reproductive cycles, but it seems to be hatching time. First we found a minuscule gecko running around the kitchen floor, its head out of all proportion to its body, its tail damp and curled as though it had just come out of the shell. Then Husband rescued this baby lizard from a precarious position by the pool and released it into the wild garden behind. I believe it’s a male Large Psammodromus; I failed to capture the full length of its tail in the photograph


Ten days ago I was helping carry a wooden sunbed up some steps. I was facing forward, holding my end of the bed at my back, thinking this would be a better way to mount the steps. It turns out it wasn’t. I stumbled and dropped the bed on my own calf. It didn’t hurt that much, but since then the flesh of one leg has gradually bruised, like slow-moving oil on water, and has made me uncomfortable, tired and annoyed. All of which meant that at the latest meeting of the anti-oil-and-gas group, at a certain point and rather to my own surprise, and having up to that moment (about two hours in) said nothing, I exclaimed,

‘I just can’t stand all this talking!’

And soon after that I left, safely removed by Husband.

It also means that at the latest demo on the beach, this coming Sunday, I shall not be Sister Anna with the Banner. But I am continuing the good work with T-shirts. A Secret Weapon in LA has designed some great logos for us: the design for the back can be seen below. We’ve had an early batch printed up and they will be worn on the beach on Sunday by the banner-carriers, as well as being on sale in a couple of outlets in Tavira. (All proceeds to the cause, of course.)

And my work can be, and currently is, restorative. I often think what a lucky move it was to have found a means of earning a living that can be achieved in solitude and silence. No blog next week because we will be busy bidding goodbye to guests. And a poor effort this week. No energy to update you on the swallows, who were late out of the nest this morning, perhaps because we’ve just had the first rain since May, or to describe the smudge of brown cloud five days ago, blown over from forest fires in the west – now thankfully out. It’s a time of low ebb.


Secret compartment

Three years since my father’s death. Being with him when he died, having that close experience of a parent’s death, started a tremor that continues to pulse through my life. The reverberations are positive. He was not sentimental about death; he’d embraced the idea of it early on.

He liked to fish, and he liked to work with wood; he self-deprecatingly called himself more ‘wood butcher’ than carpenter. He made his children and grandchildren wooden chests, many of which had secret compartments. He showed me how to access the secret compartment in mine: via a peg in the floor, hidden beneath a velvet lining, which when lifted out released the drawer in the plinth. One of the first and largest boxes he made was to house certain family treasures such as his family bible – a huge volume with a leather spine but missing front and back covers, allegedly destroyed in a bomb blast during the second world war. This chest was rumoured to have a secret compartment, but one for which access had not been detailed, and none of us knew if it really existed.

As short-notice plans for a lunch to mark the third anniversary grew, I decided to find a last-minute flight to England and join in.

It was a great gathering, almost complete in close family members, and we decided once and for all to investigate the bible chest. Two keys fixed to the base behind the decorative plinth looked intriguing but were decoys, sawn off at the ends. The decoys – a very Dad thing to do – raised our expectations. We knew then we were on to something. A suggestion of space between the interior and exterior of the box’s base was promising. We fetched screwdrivers and tackled the interior compartments, unscrewing and gradually freeing them until we could pull them out. There it was: in the shallow base of the box lay newspapers, special issue stamps, packets of seeds, a John Donne poem, a self-penned poem and an envelope – ‘This letter will have some interest if left sealed before the year 2000’. Since we were sixteen years beyond that date, we opened it.

The letter, dated 22nd Aug 1985, began: ‘Welcome to the past. I hope a considerable period of time has elapsed since I closed this compartment . . .’

It went on: ‘I offer you seeds in the hope that they may germinate. A living piece of my present, to your present . . .’

I brought these seeds home to Portugal to plant in our garden: pennyroyal (poejo), oregano (oregão), dill (aneto), caraway (alcaravia). Wish me luck because I’m not the best plant nurturer. One can only learn.

It ended: ‘I wish you good health and the wealth to enjoy it, and bid you a distant farewell.’


Biscuits on the beach



A swallowtail in the bougainvillea


It must have taken me a couple of days to notice that the cicadas had fallen silent. They have moved into the next stage of their lifecycle and we won’t hear from them again for another ten months. Swallowtails and Hummingbird Hawkmoths visit our bougainvillea regularly. Our juvenile Red-rumped Swallows go on longer and longer flying trips, but still come home to the nest and demand to be fed, and if we are in the way – leaving our home by the front door, for example – we will experience flying passes at our noses from the parents until we drop out of view.

It was neighbour Maria’s birthday and I wanted to make her something sweet. I settled on madeleines, so easy to make, especially when butter can be creamed within ten minutes of being taken out of the fridge. First time round we got the date wrong. We turned up at their house with madeleines in a makeshift box and were met by puzzlement. Amusement swiftly replaced the puzzlement.

‘Does this look like the face of someone who likes cakes?’ Maria circled a stout finger around the circumference of her broad features as she asked. She has a face that, besides suggesting a love of cake, looks for amusement. I often see her features working themselves up to tell an entertaining story. Husband has to be around to understand the story fully, mind you. I still lag far behind in comprehension.

On the correct birthday, we turned up with another lot of madeleines.

‘Again?’ said Maria, looking pleased enough.

So it seemed like nothing at all that I should offer to make a load of biscuit dough for cooking up at the beach in a solar oven, the dimensions and capacity of which I knew nothing about. It was part of our next planned protest action, something for kids, to show them clean energy alternatives and have fun. (At least we dropped the idea of making human letters in the sand; that took a bit of the load off.)

I say ‘offer’ but it’s the sort of volunteering you do when an idea is proposed, left hanging in the air, and several pairs of wide eyes look at you expectantly.

I decided the best kind of biscuit dough to manipulate in unfavourable, sandy conditions would be the sort you roll into a sausage-shape and then simply slice. I settled upon pinwheel biscuits as an attractive option. I worked out quantities and made lists of ingredients and thought of all the tools I might possibly need at the beach. In short, I was making a meal of everything, all over again.

The capacity of butter to melt at room temperature within minutes began to be less of a bonus as I mixed, then rolled and cut eight mathematically exact oblongs of chocolate and vanilla dough. I made four stacks and rolled each one up, every piece of the equation that wasn’t in immediate use being put straight back in the fridge to firm up again. Next day I packed an insulated bag with rolls of newspaper, as though making a fire, and stashed every ice pack I could find inside. The chilled rolls of biscuit dough went in there. I filled another bag with Opinel knife, baking trays, palette knife, reusable foil, cooling rack, temperature gauge, tea towels . . .

The solar oven turned out to be a marvellous, well-loved piece of kit, like a Victorian display case with an angled, silvered flap hinged to its base. The newspaper-stuffed ice-bag did its job well; the biscuit sausages didn’t descend into the oily, softening mass I had feared. They sliced up perfectly like pieces of jewellery, appropriate for their display case. Then it was just a case of monitoring the temperature – thank goodness for that gauge I brought – while the solar oven’s maker/owner judged the angle of the sun and periodically moved the device around for maximum exposure. Whenever we opened the glass front to extract or insert food, the temperature dropped speedily. It crept back up again only slowly. Altogether at peak heat it reached 99°C, if I remember rightly. The cookies made by A turned out to have been a much better idea. They didn’t look as glamorous as my pinwheel biscuits but they achieved the right texture: soft and chewy. The pinwheel biscuits dried rather more than they cooked; they were edible but lacked crispness.

The pinwheel biscuits in the solar oven. (And my cowboy hat in shadow)

The pinwheel biscuits in the solar oven. (And my cowboy hat in shadow)


Next to me an ativista was cooking pancakes with great panache on a parabolic solar cooker. The solar cooking attracted so much attention that before long the trestle table on which petitions were signed was moved out of its customary shaded position and into the sun alongside the ‘kitchen’ to maximise the collection of signatures.

The pancake-maker-with-panache showed two boys of nine or ten how they could wave their hands under the pan suspended in the parabola and feel the heat that was magically there. She began to explain to them about clean energies and the need for them.

‘No, don’t talk to me about climate change!’ said one of the boys. ‘It makes me scared. I get goosepimples if I think about it.’

Ah, well, there you have it.

Tuesday’s (today, as I write) Público has an anti-oil piece by prominent Portuguese novelist and writer Lídia Jorge, who comes originally from the Algarve. She writes beautifully. This is my very rough translation of some of her affecting words:

. . . just when the realm of black gold is being shaken by the galloping development of renewable energies, just when everything is heading towards liberation from the dictatorship of crude, [Portugal] has handed its territory over for hydrocarbon exploitation . . . The oil companies are sweeping up the last of the fossil fuels from the backyards of the weakest. The concessions signed with Portugal can only be humiliating, blinkered, a compromise to be borne by the next three generations . . . The population is told that the wealth will be returned to the regions and to the country, but people travel and they talk to each other, and they know that the purse that holds the oil money will be kept far away from the hand that does the work. We are not a dramatic country, we are a lyrical one. Here there will not be blood. Here everything ends in saltwater . . .

Banners at the beach once more

Banners at the beach once more

Swallow family

Baby swallow: 'Where's my food?'

Baby swallow: ‘Where’s my food?’

Parent arrives with food, having decided - eventually - to ignore me and my camera lens

Parent arrives with food, having decided – eventually – to ignore me and my camera lens


A couple of days after the demise of the unfortunate baby swallow, an entire swallow family emerged from the nest: four fully fledged, perfect young birds. All the more reason to conclude that the dead one was the runt and considered superfluous to the survival of the family group. Nature takes no prisoners.

We think there are four juveniles. What with the occasional visiting adult of unknown relation, and all the fast and playful dipping and swooping done by the newly fledged, plus the fact that they are only just discernible from adult birds, it’s hard to be sure exactly how many there are. Nor have they completely left the nest. They spend most of their time back in there, being fed by the parents, and how they all fit inside is a mystery. They do not emerge at the entrance to the tunnel to take food but do peek out occasionally, then retreat if one of us is around.

The parents are less tolerant of us than they were. They endured the daily photography during the nest building. After nest completion, everything went rather quiet for a while. This wasn’t the loud, in-your-face hatching and rearing performed by the sparrows last year. Just the simple, sudden appearance after the appropriate amount of time – about five weeks – of a group of perfect young birds. Now that the parents have newly airborne young, if we stand too long at the entrance to our own home they are inclined to fly towards our noses then jink before contact. I wouldn’t say it’s aggressive, exactly. I don’t think it’s over-friendly either. All the same, we love them, the entire Red-rumped Swallow family, and it’s wonderful to think that they are likely to return year after year.

If we lie on the sunbeds in the garden at the end of the day (such as when a house-guest is taking care of the evening meal; see below), we can watch the parent swallows as they circle endlessly overhead, collecting food. We can also watch the Bee-eaters. They glide their fabulously coloured geometric shapes against the brilliant blue sky as they return to their roost in a nearby valley. Between long glides they will fast-flutter then brake and spin on the spot, perhaps plucking insects out of the air, perhaps testing and displaying their flying prowess.

A young visitor from New York stayed with us this week. She slept out under the stars, which is perfect in the month of August. I did it myself about ten days ago, to watch the Perseid shower at its peak on the night of 11/12th. I made a comfortable nest on the sunbed, gazed deep into the infinite stars and waited for the show to begin . . . then woke up as dawn was breaking, having missed it all. Our starlight-sleeper woke up after her final night with one eye half closed thanks to an insect sting. She googled a remedy, reluctantly concluded that sourcing it from the side of a hill in back-of-beyond Portugal was unlikely, and approached Husband for help.

Husband went to the knife drawer. This caused initial consternation.

He sliced a leaf off the Aloe vera plant in the garden and squeezed out some gel to soothe over the swollen eye. The eye was back to normal within a few hours.

‘Wow, you guys have everything here,’ she said. Coming from someone born and bred in one of the best-supplied cities on earth, this is something. And I think she might be right.

The googled remedy, by the way? Aloe vera.

Our next anti-oil action is scheduled for Sunday and is to involve kids. Among the activities there are to be human letters in the sand again, but I’m going to let it be more ad hoc this time. No more angsting over that for me.

I never tire of visiting beautiful Tavira. By the Roman Bridge at midday, low tide

I never tire of visiting beautiful Tavira. By the Roman Bridge at midday, low tide

Feathered and painted friends

Bodies wrapped in black shiny fabric crawled or were pulled out of the sea; yellow and green-painted bodies in torn clothing and gasmasks staggered between people reclining on sunbeds. Ilha de Tavira was the scene of Saturday’s art attack, highlighting the perils to humanity of the proposed extraction of oil and gas from land and sea. For the crowds of holidaying beachgoers this distraction from the work of sunbathing was entertaining, puzzling or, in a few cases, alarming. I’m sure I’d have been horrified if I hadn’t known what was going on, but then I am a cautious type, which was possibly why I landed the role of ‘preparation of the site for the human slogan’. The sensible decision was taken to keep the slogan short, and in English, since the equivalent in Portuguese would have been twice as long. It was to declare: NO OIL NO GAS.

I bore the responsibility for this small task very heavily. First I researched online the making of letters with the human body. The more professional versions not only made athletic demands of the participants but also, for some letters, looked more fitting for the wall of an Indian temple. I found what I thought were the more feasible ones and set about creating a how-to sheet for the gutsy volunteers. My main task, however, was to mark out the site, so I mentally roughed out a size – 2 by 15 metres would do it, I thought – then cut canes into short lengths and tied them together at the right intervals with string.

I was assisted in this by a visiting friend. Some ten weeks earlier she had broken both legs when her large and boisterous dog had miscalculated an affectionate greeting and bowled her over at about 30mph. She was by now in leg braces with a crutch, but still managed the trip from London to the Algarve. Let’s call her the Hobbler.

We took the ferry to the beach. The Hobbler managed to get on and off the wobbly boat. I was carrying the canes, a heavy rope to form a baseline, and a device for smoothing out the sand. At the entrance to the line of cafes and bars we bumped into A, one of the organisers.

‘The beach is crowded. You’ll have to manage the people there,’ she said lightly.

The Hobbler and I made our way slowly to the site of the action. The agreed spot was hard to find. Husband had to be called from his other responsibilities to get me to the right location. It was a blazing afternoon and the sand was difficult to walk on for the Hobbler.

I managed to find an area that, although obstructing many people’s route to the sea, didn’t actually require my asking anyone to move. I set out the canes, driving them in with my palm. The Hobbler helped where she could, moving around the area on her backside. My sand-smoothing device was a children’s plastic toy rake; I hadn’t been capable of carrying anything larger. It soon broke. The heat was intense. Tears of sweat ran into my eyes. Using a piece of cane like a rolling pin, I made out the letters in the sand. Beach-users were puzzled but fairly unimpressed. Both the Hobbler and I were beginning to feel quite wretched, albeit for different reasons.

Then the bodies started to arrive by sea and across the sands, and the crowds gathered. Photographers came and people grabbed their mobile phones to record the event. Actor-bodyguards pulled bodies from the waves and assisted the poisoned. As the bodies staggered over towards me, Husband – by now at my side having completed duties elsewhere – whipped away the canes. The bodies threw themselves into their well-rehearsed shapes, a photographic drone moving overhead. They held the letter shapes for a while then arose, gathered banners and formed a chanting semi-circle in the sand. They went on to perform other art attacks on the lagoon side of the beach island, culminating in swimming out to board a solar-powered boat, dismantling a make-believe oil rig on it and covering the deck in banners.


Protest flashmob on the beach on Saturday

Protest flashmob on the beach on Saturday


The ‘bodies’, all those uninhibited members of Tavira em Transição, were amazing. And the protests are gaining ground all the time. After Galp/ENI’s indefinite postponement of their drilling plans came the news this week that Repsol Partex were ‘indefinitely postponing’ their October plans too. They have the concession to drill in the sea off the Tavira/Faro coast.

But they also serve who only kneel in the blistering sand for an hour raking smooth an area of 30 square metres using nothing but a broken piece of plastic little bigger than a human hand. Afterwards I found that I had burnt both knees and taken a patch of skin off my right palm. O, the mortifications of that day.

We needed peace and quiet on Sunday. On the veranda I stooped to pick up a fallen hibiscus flower. Behind it was something mouldy-looking. I got closer. It was a baby bird, grey down waving above its incomplete flight feathers. A baby Red-rumped Swallow, fallen from the nest. Such consternation! Do we leave it, or feed it, or try to get it back in the nest? Swallows aren’t ground-dwelling birds. It wasn’t hopping about at the start of life, its anxious parents hovering nearby. Its parents were nearby but unconcerned. They had other chicks. They might even have chucked this one out as superfluous or inadequate. It did look a bit wonky, but then it had fallen from a height. The parents certainly weren’t wasting any resources over it now.

We dripped water on to its beak from a pipette. We caught insects and tried to get it to feed on them; it kept its mouth closed and shuffled into as inconspicuous position as it could find.

That night we drove out to a restaurant but our bird trials were not over. As we arrived in the almost full car park, I saw a rather odd-looking bird mascot on the grille of a Peugeot. It was quite realistic. No, wait, it was real. It was what was left of a dead bird. No, hang on, it was alive. It was the head and breast of a panting and panicking bird. Hobbler and I got out of the car while Husband went to find a space to park. We poked around in the radiator grille and got pecked at. Nothing wrong with the bird’s neck or beak then. To get it out without being savaged, we needed a tool. Hobbler withdrew a pen from her bag. I pushed the fingers of my left hand into the grille. I located a claw, which found purchase on my hand. I could feel the bird push its leg against me. On the other side, I wormed the pen in along the bird’s back. I gently pulled, the bird pushed, and it burst out of captivity and flew unevenly across the car park. It had managed deftly, ungratefully, to stab me as it escaped. I don’t know if it had a bright future or was going to be an easy meal. Either way, it had to be better than a slow death in the grille of a Peugeot.

Our fallen bird at home was still alive that night, and the following day. It shook barely perceptibly and made feeble noises when it could hear its clutch-mates calling to their parents. It was breaking our hearts.

Monday night was a thunderstorm and heavy rain. In the morning, the bird was gone. It had been assumed* into heaven by some agency, perhaps Little Owl.

*This is for the Catholics.

The doomed baby bird

The doomed baby bird


Beach work

Paper Wasps: we have more of these nests than we would really like. One wasp is whirring his wings like a fan, I guess to dry the latest application of 'paper' to the nest

Paper Wasps: we have more of these nests than we would really like. One wasp is whirring his wings like a fan, I guess to dry the latest application of ‘paper’ to the nest

Our fig tree gave us a second harvest this year, unlike last. The figs of the second harvest are small, purple and intensely sweet

Our fig tree gave us a second harvest this year, unlike last. The figs of the second harvest are small, purple and intensely sweet

The gin-and-tonic spot

The place to view the meditation hill, and perhaps drink a gin and tonic

washing line

The swallows enjoy the view of the meditation hill too


Galpgate has opened, and doesn’t look like closing any time soon. This is the revelation that the oil company Galp – who recently postponed ‘indefinitely’ their drilling plans off the coast of Aljezur in the western Algarve – have been mining Portuguese politicians for human resources to add to their bookable reserves.* A privately chartered aeroplane took, among others, three secretaries of state to France for the Euro2016 games: all expenses covered and tickets to the games supplied, including, in the case of Rocha (‘Rock’) Andrade, secretary of state for fiscal affairs, a seat at the final. That particular Rock was no doubt well worth drilling, since as fiscal boss he is in charge of Galp’s many and large tax debts to the state, which the oil company is refusing to pay. The other two grubby-handed secretaries are Jorge Costa Oliveira and João Vasconcelos. Vasconcelos looks particularly grimy because he is in charge of Galp’s application for public subsidies for the building of an oil refinery.

Once the bright light of publicity shone on them, the three secretaries of state claimed innocence of any unethical behaviour while simultaneously offering to repay some or all of the expenses. No doubt these men still remain highly ‘bookable’ in Galp’s terms.

Here on the ground we keep up our fight against all the oil and gas companies. In preparation for a beach event this coming Saturday, a discussion and rehearsal group gathered one evening on the sands. Saturday’s event is an art attack, requiring creative, devil-may-care, outgoing types, of which we have plenty in the group. Feelings, however, were running high. What is at stake – the health and wellbeing and livelihoods of the many against the destructive greed of a tiny few – would make anyone febrile. Add to that some anxiety about how things will turn out – the human chain event was a huge success, but who can guarantee the same again? – then toss in a few unpredictable aspects of the artistic personality, and fissures start to open up. We ended up with some constructive decisions, plus a whole lot of hurt feelings, and a few people wondering whether they can even participate. The price of activism. It’s worth it, but it’s a difficult journey in so many ways.

Meeting on the beach

Meeting on the beach


Sunset at the beach (Ilha de Tavira)


Against all this, there is such joy and peace to be found at home. We have two new chairs, hand-made by Robert Harris. They are on the front veranda, from where we look out at the meditation hill as the day fades, watching the tree-spotted, straw-blonde earth turn slowly to rich ochre and then eventually to grey. At the other end of the veranda, the swallows are as happy in their home as we are in ours, and sometimes like to sit on the washing line and enjoy the same view that we do. Still no sign of chicks being fed, but so much activity in and out of their mud house that surely it can’t be long. Just as I was about to post this blog, Husband came dashing in. He’s heard the sound of chicks, he says.

* An oil company’s market value is enhanced by being able to lay claim to oil/gas reserves still under the ground – known as ‘bookable reserves’.

Oil and gas – good news

Dragonfly in silhouette, its wing bent by the breeze

Dragonfly in silhouette, its wing bent by the breeze


The Algarve is bursting with fairs and festas at this time of year, but I don’t seem to be able to make an appearance unless hanging off a banner. The mountain festival in São Brás de Alportel was one such event, big and well-organised, with much speechifying broadcast over speakers placed around the venue. Our friend Nemesio had organized with the local authority to have a stand collecting signatures against oil and gas prospection. This was specifically to add to the numbers of people objecting to Galp/ENI’s plans while the public consultation period, ending on 3 August, was still under way. It was a huge success. I only managed to appear for a couple of hours, but I found, as I have before, that the process of mustering support is a fascinating one. Most people need just a little encouragement to sign. Other people come up of their own accord, sign with determination, take out their ID and carefully record the digits against their signature, and then, when thanked, say, ‘Thank you.’ Almost nobody bats you away when they realise what you are asking for. There’s no doubt that the fossil fuel industry’s plans for the Algarve – and other parts of Portugal – meet with minuscule or zero support from the people. It’s all about a few corrupt politicians, most of them in the previous administration.

Anti-oil and gas stand at the São Brás fair

The stand at the São Brás fair


Two things from last week’s blog have not come about. (Three, if I include the swallows.) This is part of the great fun of writing a blog. One was my confident prediction that I was entering a period of work-free clear blue space. I imagined the hours spent in the glistening water of the pool beneath the glorious azure skies. Then I got a horrible, monstrous flu. This is the first time I’ve written this blog from a sickbed. The sun is blazing away, the pool is glistening, but I’ve been wrapped up in the dark for days. It’s fading away now. (And it’s why there are hardly any pictures this week.)

Much better, however, is this. The relentless pressure by activists is paying off. On 29 July, Galp/ENI announced the indefinite postponement of their plans to drill exploratory oil wells. Not only that, they did it in a marvellously huffy way. ‘We had everything ready to start operations and we had to stop,’ said chairman Carlos Gomes da Silva, blaming the hard-won extension of the public consultation period for his woes. Another reason is the belated force given to an EU directive requiring enhanced safety measures for such operations. Forcing Galp/ENI to do their work properly was obviously too much to ask of them. The chairman suggested darkly that Portugal was missing its chance to become Norway. The suspension has no recommencement date.

The mayor of Tavira has given a brief interview to the press in which he reiterated his absolute objection to the presence of an oil and gas industry in the Algarve, whether onshore or offshore. This is more progress, because for a long time he was apparently only concerned about what would happen on land. He also confirmed that the mayoral group has filed two injunctions against the activity. We can have oil, or we can have tourism, he said. He knows which side his bread is buttered on.

Earthquakes of 3.4 and 4 on the Richter scale were registered off the coast of the Algarve this week, in the areas identified for exploration; just another reason why offshore drilling is madness.

The Red-rumped Swallows still do not have hatchlings. They are continuing to bring in soft bedding material to the nest. And we’re rather puzzled by the appearance of a third adult; we haven’t been able to establish its sex, or its role in the current set-up. It’s all terribly modern. We continue to wait and see.


Human chain (again)

The pool. We use it only mornings and evenings, during the day the sun is too powerful. These coincide with the passage of the bee-eaters over our heads

The pool. We use it only mornings and evenings; during the day the sun is too powerful. These times happily coincide with the passage of the bee-eaters over our heads

This is Quercus coccifera, the kermes oak, which I see at the top of the hill when I go for an early morning walk

Quercus coccifera, the kermes oak, which I see at the top of the hill when I go for an early morning walk

The alfarrobeiras are heavy with sweet-smelling, chocolaty pods, which clatter to the ground freely and often. This is a harvest I'm hoping to leave to our neighbouring farmer, Eleuterio

The alfarrobeiras are heavy with sweet-smelling, chocolaty pods, which clatter to the ground freely and often. This is a harvest I’m hoping to leave to our neighbouring farmer, Eleuterio, to collect

Turning some of the glut of peaches into chutney, which filled the kitchen one evening with the smell of vinegar

Turning some of the glut of peaches into chutney, and filling the kitchen with the smell of vinegar


Occasionally a tiny piece of heavy machinery will hum past your ear and land on a nearby tree with great firmness as though suctioned into place by a force within the bark. It is a cicada on the move. It is a stout insect with a wide, squared-off head that has a large eye on each corner, and lacy, overlong wings. The males’ collective noise – it is only the males – seems to make the air pulsate. They do it, I have read, by vibrating a membrane on the abdomen. I haven’t been able to get close enough to see this in action, if it is visible at all.

For most of the year we experience silence and birdsong. The months of high heat and slow movement are filled with this plangent, plaintive sound. It is the inescapable sound of summer.

The Red-rumped Swallows do not yet have hatchlings, but they must have eggs, for they are being furtive and shifty. The confident industry of nest-building was a different mode for them. Now, if I look up at their nest as I leave the front door, I might just see a shiny blue crown at the neck of the tunnel, which will quickly withdraw. I wait, then it re-emerges, big round eyes checking me out, then disappears once more into the safety of the nest. If I stay put for a few more seconds, it realises it has to disregard me and fly off anyway. Sometimes in the evenings we hear them in their mudhouse, madly tuning their tiny analogue radio. They still can’t find that elusive channel.

I feel rather like I’m emerging from a tunnel of my own making, out of a mound of manuscripts. Clear blue space awaits me, several weeks without the ping of the email, a staycation here in this beautiful spot, starting at the end of this week.

But the oil and gas threat never goes away. There are reprieves: promises of judicial action to undo the unethical contracts, drilling start dates delayed, government debates that suggest a degree of awareness at least. While I was buried in manuscripts, Husband, when not similarly buried under a mound of bread dough, was out on the anti-oil beat. The President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, visited a nearby town of Loulé and was met by protestors. He shrugged off their concerns with a rather puzzling comparison between finding oil in the Algarve and flying to the moon. It isn’t possible to analyse this gnomic comment with any degree of success, so I’ve given up trying. The facts remain that deep-sea oil drilling – of an ‘exploratory nature’ – is due to start off the western coast of the Algarve on 3 August, while oil company Repsol have been rubbing their hands with glee for several years in the knowledge of a vast gas field containing half a trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas off the coast nearer to us, related to a similar field in the bay of Cádiz.

Last week Portugal’s environment minister came to Tavira to enjoy a sunny afternoon in the company of the town mayor. Together they were to open the new boat departure area for Ilha de Tavira (namely, a concreted-over stretch on the mouth of the river). Neither of them was expecting to be met by an anti-oil protest. It is amazing how effective six people can be when they show up at the right time and position themselves and their banners behind politicians on a photo shoot.

What else is to be done? How about all getting together and holding hands on the beach to form a human chain? Yes! Anything is better than nothing, and this turned out to be very good with hundreds of participants, perhaps a thousand if you include the many beachgoers on the hugely popular Ilha de Tavira who were persuaded to hold hands for a while in between running to the sea and back. A couple of press reports can be seen here and here. Typically of such events, estimates of numbers involved vary widely . . .

I was back from London in time for the beach protest. As I arrived at the beach site where protestors were gathering, someone from Tavira em Transição spotted me – this is a citizens’ movement I am part of – and asked me to take hold of the bamboo pole supporting one side of a large protest banner so she could run off and do other stuff. Husband and our two Lisbon friends had gone elsewhere in the line. The other side of this banner was held by someone I didn’t know, but who was fabulously vocal in the anti-oil chants and gave good interviews to the press. I held on to my bamboo pole from then on, and didn’t let go until it was time to roll the banner up and put it away at the end. I politely declined to be interviewed when a TV reporter came to me with his red microphone; I put this down to my lack of Portuguese, but it’s also got a lot to do with the fact that I don’t much like talking. Holding on to a banner: it’s a great role for an introvert at a manif. Just shove me in that direction and I’ll be there, hanging on, for as long as it takes.

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