Back to the watermill

Blossom by the watermill

I needed the medium-sized stepladder to reach the swallow nest. A roll of masking tape was left over from painting and I used this in strips to make a kind of basket suspended from the ceiling – sticky side inwards – that covered the entire nest without touching it. All this because the barn swallows, which until last week we’d never before seen around here, chased the red-rumped swallows away and took over the nest. I wasn’t having that. It was sad so see the red-rumped swallows flee, a day after arriving. (Why are they so fey and always give in so easily?) So the barn swallows must learn, just as the sparrows have done, that they can nest wherever they like, just not outside our front door. That space, along with what is left of the nest, belongs to the red-rumped swallows. Should they reappear, I will remove the masking tape. Here’s hoping, however faintly, that they do.

I am, I know, a little obsessed with the nest and its rightful occupants. I am also obsessed with the ruined watermill at the foot of the path to the river, which equally deserves rightful occupants. My fascination comes and goes. It depends how much spare time I’ve got, and whether I can interest anyone else in it. Luckily this week we had two friends visiting us whose interest was piqued. They arrived in blissful weather which lasted their whole stay, and once we’d finished exploring the permaculture project and opened the swimming pool for the first time this year, we visited the mill.

Previous nosing about had established that the impeller wheel would have been underground, positioned horizontally, while a sluice gate in a rear room released the water from the reservoir at the back to flow through, under the building, and drive the wheel and its various gears and shafts. Broken millstones lie about in the main room amid shattered tiles and cane from the fallen ceiling. A cut-out circle can be seen in the centre of the floor, where the millstones would have been, and in the middle of this space is a small square opening that leads down into the underground chamber. This is as far as the explorations had got, but then Neil, combining slender hips with an adventurous spirit, dropped himself down through the square, a tight fit, to land on his feet in the silt below. His head soon disappeared as well, but his voice echoed back.

No equipment remained underground except for a rusty pickaxe head, but the shape of the underground chamber revealed itself: a dome. The inlet for the water is set at an angle to encourage centrifugal force. The whole device is a turbine. The outlet would presumably have led back to the river, perhaps running underground until it got there. Mill water could, I imagine, be diverted for irrigation, but this is an isolated mill on a bend of the river and the water must surely have ended up back in the stream. The wheel was likely to have been wood, long since rotted away, which would explain its absence. It might be possible to dig some remains out of the silt. That’s for another day.

Neil made his way out of chamber again, having taken photographs on my camera for later inspection.

It’s an overlooked thing, this mill. It’s still up for sale as a tourist project with no requirement whatsoever to protect the Portuguese heritage it represents.

Rollie, my Renault 4, my own little bit of heritage, is doing rather well. He’s been running smoothly for many months now. In April he needs his annual service and inspection, and I began to think of getting in touch with Costa, even though it had been a while since I’d spoken to or seen him, to ask if he would take care of this as he has done the previous two years. On Monday I drove to Tavira. I planned to call Costa on my mobile while I was out and could get a signal but I was rather busy and didn’t. Almost back at home, at the top of our dirt track, I remembered. I pulled into one of the passing places and took out my phone.

I’d missed a call from Costa by minutes.

I swear, when it comes to the Renault 4, we have a perfect, telepathic understanding. We’re going to meet up later in the week.

Underneath the mill. The water inlet

The water outlet. Here you can clearly see the dome shape

A millstone in the grounds

Never give up

Moody weather over the Meditation Hill

Linaria amethystea, Amethyst Toadflax, a tiny jewel amid the abundant greenery


The landform engineering is complete. The steepest part of the hill is wreathed in swales. They are large and deep, and within each land-hugging curve is a flatter terrace designed to make the land easier to walk on and – eventually – harvest from. The completion of the digging was met with downpours. Pleasingly, the swales, although they lack the mulching and the plant roots that will make them truly like sponges, channelled and held on to plenty of water.

Before the rain came we sowed the swales with seed – what musical words! – of broad bean and oat to generate green manure for spring-time and roots to train the water down into the earth. I joined in, informing the others as I scattered the seed with a sweep of the arm that this was the origin of the English word ‘broadcast’. This fascinating announcement fell on stony ground. Of much more interest to them – I discovered only when I’d finished – was my technique of scattering. It took me four times as long as anyone else and on completion I was met with indulgent looks. I demand patience from my co-workers, it seems. My desired transition from desk-worker to smallholder is going slowly. I’m still more Margot than Barbara.

It was morning and the sun rising over the opposite hill – the Meditation Hill – had lit up most of the dew drops like diamonds, but some drops, hanging heavily from grass stalks by a broken rock, looked more like copper, gold, amethyst. The broken rock had to be shale, I realised; this shiny film is what the fossil-fuel dinosaurs are interested in. It’s a great relief that the contracts giving one deluded businessman the rights to frack almost half of the landmass of the Algarve were cancelled. All the offshore rights remain in place, however, and one activist with her nose close to the paperwork – Laurinda Seabra – discovered that in January the government had secretly signed the licence for Galp-ENI to start drilling 3,000 metres below the seabed off the Aljezur coast. Not only that, in the small print the oil consortium is exempt both from paying licence fees and a security deposit and from providing proof that they have civil responsibility insurance in place – which can surely only mean that they have no such insurance in place. The government has taken no notice whatsoever of our repeated protests and petitions. Gestures towards public consultation were a weird Trumpian handshake while behind the scenes it was business as usual. So we’ll have to keep protesting. The next demonstration takes place in Lisbon outside the Assembleia da República on 23 February, when a long overdue parliamentary hearing is intended finally to take place to discuss the issues raised during the public consultation process: just to complete the window-dressing on their part, I guess.

Soon we will plant trees on the land. Mind you, with all the log fires we’ve been making to drive out the damp and the chill of recent wet days, we must be burning more trees than we could ever replace. Hypocrisy – never far away.

The sparrows refuse to lose interest in our veranda and its mud nest. They managed somehow to dislodge the two corks nailed together with metal U-pins. This contraption must match the body weight of the sparrows, so they really do deserve applause. But they are not getting in on my watch. I’ve replaced the corks. Build your own nest, feathered friends. You have so much space to choose from.

The sparrows don’t give up. The oilmen don’t give up. And we don’t give up. Well, apart from last week when I was scheduled to write a blog as ever, but ran out of juice and didn’t do it. It is a purely self-imposed deadline, an exercise in self-discipline and commitment as much as in communication, but it’s important to me and I didn’t like failing to meet it. I’m glad to be back this week.

This sparrow youngster was fascinated by the phones near the Signal Tree, aka the central post of the veranda with its backdrop of bougainvillea, often strung about with devices as it is one of the best places to have a chance of picking up an incoming call. First it looked at itself in the screen . . .

. . . then, having discovered how cute it was, it played all coy in front of Husband, hiding its face in its wing

Snow in the Algarve

Carpenter bee in the bougainvillea

The snow of the Algarve: the almond trees are in blossom


While our swallows are far away in West Africa, the sparrows have tried again to take over the nest. The same old story. So we nailed two corks together, side by side, using heavy U-shaped pins, and slotted them into the entrance to the mud house. We went away for a couple of nights and came back to find the corks had done the job: the sparrows hadn’t been able to remove them. What they had done instead, however, was to start to peck away at the mud gobbets placed by our indefatigable swallows in order to get in behind the obstruction. They hadn’t removed enough to gain access so we pushed the corks further in to block them. The only sure-fire way to protect the nest is to hang around on the front veranda for ever. The sparrows don’t like us near. The feeling is mutual.

Our permaculture journey is about to begin. Behind the house, the neglected hillside is to be ‘engineered’ into water-retaining swales and terraces and planted with a variety of young trees. We will slowly sow seeds and plants between the trees, as well as allowing pioneer seeds to take root for themselves. From here, the biotope will do its own thing. The health of the soil will gradually be enhanced and it will increasingly sequester carbon and hold water. In the few weeks since our eyes were opened to this possibility, I have tried to teach myself about permaculture and developing a food forest. Some of the things I have learned:

  1. Diversity is key.
  2. The soil is queen.
  3. Mulch is king. All kinds of things, not just plant material, can be mulch: old clothes and cardboard, for example.
  4. No such thing as garden ‘rubbish’. It’s all useful biomass.
  5. The biotope is a natural, self-sufficient energy system. Nothing in, nothing out – except for food produce.
  6. Weeds are good, not least for soil cover.
  7. Don’t be purist. What works, works.
  8. It isn’t always pretty in the short term. In the long term, it will be beautiful.
  9. It is an agricultural system for humans (and animals) to live in.
  10. Small-scale farmers feed the majority of the world – some say 80 per cent – while having access to less than a quarter of all farmland.

Another journey, begun long ago, has reached a new destination. When my grandparents ran away from County Offaly in Ireland to Liverpool to get married – in the face of parental disapproval – they didn’t know they were extending a lifeline to a future granddaughter that would allow her to keep her treasured European citizenship. I applied to register at the Irish embassy in Lisbon as an Irish citizen of ‘foreign birth’, then, once that had been confirmed with a certificate, I applied for a passport, which a few weeks later arrived from Dublin, via Lisbon. It was straightforward and I dealt with nice human beings all along the way. Across the pages of my new passport run lilting lines of prose, among which are: ‘The Irish nation treasures its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.’

Lordy visiting us

Lordy with his breakfast bread

Bony fig tree, soon to come into leaf

Bread: two spelt and seven alfarroba loaves. The alfarroba (carob in English, Johannisbrot in German) was a successful experiment. Almost half the bread’s flour comes from the alfarroba, the rest is rye, spelt and wheat; the crumb is firm and dark and mildly sweet, the crust has a hint of caramelisation. It slices well and keeps well. Not for nothing does the German name of the tree and its fruit translate into English as St John’s bread


The river was late this year. It started to come back in a trickle at the end of November, interrupting the council workers who’d been digging the bed for gravel. Even the local mayor had been involved in driving the gravel-laden trucks. He gave me a wave and a toothy grin when he’d pulled off the dirt track to let me go by in Rollie. Perhaps because the river’s return started so unpromisingly slowly, they felt safe to leave the JCB digger where it was.

We had family members coming to stay. Their arrival coincided with the rain falling and the river rising. It got higher and higher and higher. It was the colour of builder’s tea and carried stands of loose cane. By 1 December we sat on the veranda and listened to the roar: among the watery sounds were the cracks of cane being thrown against the rocks. By that evening the river was as high as I’d ever seen it and the rain showed no signs of stopping. It was exciting, but we had a tinge of anxiety. Behind us our garden walls had sprung small waterfalls. A river ran through where we park the car and down the path to join the river. We dragged the small butts to the veranda and poured the water into the cisterna, and back in place the butts filled up again instantly. We were sure the council workers must have regretted leaving their JCB behind.

River on 1 December, rising; by the evening it was as high as I’d ever seen it


It quietened a little on 2 December. The garden walls had held; so had the digger. Our visitors left; their short visit rain-soaked but exciting. When we got back from the airport we noticed that someone had managed to get the digger on to slightly higher land where all the water it had taken on board could drain away. The rain got heavier again the next day. Eleuterio and Maria-João came by to check everything was OK. We tried to see one another through misty screens of moisture. Lordy the dog barked in an unfriendly way; he didn’t recognise me. The river wasn’t as high as it was two days ago, but it was welling, brimming.

Men came by with cans of fuel to rescue the JCB. They had to drive the vehicle up the river path and past our house; this was not the way it had arrived and was a very tight squeeze. It barely managed the right-angle turn from the path to the dirt track, then it crunched past us making a grinding noise that I was sure was the sound of ours and our neighbours’ walls being scoured and reshaped. I held my breath until it had gone then went out to check: no damage. We’d all got away with it.

The river on 3 December

and on 4 December


It carried on raining for the next few days but the river didn’t reach its 1 December height again. By 6 December the river was no longer tea-coloured but running clear, shin-height, gurgling rather than crashing. The sun came out again. Most of the rest of the month was sunny and bright. On Christmas Eve we went to Loulé market to buy food and those curious bottles of alcohol one gets tempted into at this time of year – and which remain unopened – and to get our ancient axe sharpened by the old guy with the knife-grinder. The first two times we made our way to his table he wasn’t there. Most disappointing, since we’d dragged the axe along specially, but we were pretty sure he was somewhere nearby and that word would get to him. Sure enough by our third circuit of the market he was in his place and clearly expecting us. We left him as the whine of the grinding wheel assaulted our ears and those of everyone else. When we got back he handed us the axe with a nice bright edge: ‘That’s good for chickens now!’ he said. We rather had in mind to use it for wood splitting, but the firm oak we have as firewood is still resisting even the newly honed blade. The wood burns well, lasts long and is fragrant.

It was a beautiful Christmas: peaceful, quiet but for birdsong, under bright skies. Eleuterio and Maria-João gave us some of their eggs and olive oil; we gave them a coffee and walnut cake I’d made. The walnuts were from my father-in-law in Germany; the coffee was from a local café, where my asking for several bicas to be poured not into cups but into my jam-jar caused some consternation.

I’ve missed writing this blog, and left myself with far too much to tell you, more than I can squeeze in. Suffice to say that a few days before Christmas a small group of activists gathered at the home of one of us and sang a slightly scurrilous song written by Husband to the tune of a Portuguese carol in celebration of . . . the government’s cancellation of some of the oil and gas contracts. But the story is far from over, and there is confusion over exactly what has been stopped and to what extent, and every celebratory call is countered by a voice urging caution and another arguing for distrust. More next week.

Mist on the river on Boxing Day

Estrela fresh from the river, with water drops on her nose

A beautiful, typical Algarvian four-sided chimney, on the house of friends of ours


I asked for rain, and I got it. It thundered on the roof and danced on the fragrant earth. It was at its heaviest on Monday night, when lightning flash-lit the valley and we decided to light the fire to burn off the chill. We had friends visiting us over this wet period, whom I’d promised swims and sundowners. Luckily they had read the weather forecast and arrived clad as though for a weekend in the Lake District, which was appropriate.

By Tuesday the rain had caused tongues of red earth to slither down the hillsides on to the dirt road, but Rolie had no problems driving along. He’s still running like a dream. Don’t quite know how Costa’s Olhão-based mechanic worked the magic he did.

The rain came just in time. The water man hadn’t been able to deliver his water to the garden cisterna. He couldn’t negotiate the track up the hillside, nor did he have pipes long enough to reach from the dirt road. The garden tank had almost run dry; our external water supply was looking precarious. This primarily affected the swimming pool. Being in possession of a swimming pool is like looking after a rare and precious beast. It snores and rumbles. It requires regular inputs of water and salt. It swishes insects away with its skimmers. It likes having its sides brushed.

But then you get to swim, which is heavenly.

Now, with the rainfall, the citrus trees got saturated, droplets hanging off their yellow and green-orange fruit skins, and Eleuterio’s well started giving up water again. Perhaps the well had simply become too dry. Water is so precious.

A meeting about the future of fossil fuels in the Algarve was held in the Clube de Tavira. On the panel were the baby-faced town mayor, an admirable and precise lawyer and the writer (Lídia Jorge) whom I quoted a few weeks ago. All three were there to make the case against exploration and exploitation of oil and gas in the Algarve. Local government and local people remain lined up against central government and vested interests. Questions were sought from the audience after the panel had made their speeches. The silence that might fall over a British audience at this point, who would shrink in their seats and shuffle their feet until someone was brave enough to raise a hand, does not happen here. Instead, there is a clamour for the microphone. (A microphone!) Those who get the chance to speak will not merely stand up and introduce themselves, but quite often exit their seat in order to pace the aisle and be seen from different angles by the audience during their peroration. They might start off quietly, but as they limber up, their voice finds its rhythm and rather than ask an actual question of the panel they might be declaiming their point of view for ten whole minutes. Soon I lose my dim and hopeful grasp of Portuguese. The language ceases to be a collection of discrete words, some of which I understand, and returns to being the torrent of plosive pops, zhuzhes and rasps that it was when I first arrived here. Eventually those for whom this is the opportunity to read out an entire mission statement, which might run to several sides of A4, will get their turn at the mic. The moderator’s request for succinctness is ignored. Most of the audience, like the panel, were against the oil and gas plans, so this was not so much preaching to the converted as drilling them into the ground. The panel hardly got another word in. The wonderful passion of the people of the Algarve to protect their environment sometimes gets drowned in a sea of words.

But there are actions to come, and actions speak louder than words.

A young Common Toad squatting on our covered pool. Toads are emerging all over, enticed by the wetness; on the roads their eyes shine in the car headlights like cat’s eyes, which makes it easier to avoid squashing them

A young Common Toad squatting on our covered pool. Toads are emerging all over, enticed by the wetness; on the roads their eyes shine in the headlights like cat’s eyes, which makes it easy to spot them and so avoid squashing them

A road in Buckinghamshire announcing the post-Brexit world (seen in England last week)

A lane in Buckinghamshire announcing the post-Brexit world (seen in England last week)


I’m hoping for rain, not least because our garden watering system isn’t working and I’m clambering over the rocky ground with a heavy watering can sploshing against my leg. I’m concentrating on the citrus trees – lemons, oranges, grapefruit – because those are currently in fruit, and not being true natives they are intolerant of aridity. The water from Eleuterio’s riverside well, which usually fills our garden tank, isn’t reaching us. We’ve replaced bits of the pump, searched the hoses for kinks, put in new junction pieces, all without success. Eleuterio said he found an amphibian in the piping and thought that was the problem, but I guess it’s been removed and yet nothing has changed. The amphibian was identified by an Algarvian name which we couldn’t recognise, and by the way I now know the amphibians and reptiles of Portugal pretty damn well having attended two lectures on the subject in Sagres and made copious notes. (That weekend wasn’t just about birds.) Which also means that my recent claim to know nothing of reptilian reproduction is no longer valid. All the baby lizards and geckos around now are the product of a second breeding cycle – which only happens in advantageous years – and is thanks to a bounty of insects resulting from the rain in May. So there you go. But Eleuterio’s name for the beast-that-hadn’t-anyway-caused-the-blockage eluded us. And rain is eluding us too, though I had hoped the ferocious weather on the other side of the Atlantic might throw a drop or two our way.

What's left of the swimming area, and all that's left of the river hereabouts

What’s left of the swimming area, which is all that’s left of the river hereabouts. Look closely and you’ll see it is full of fish trying to hide in the shadows


Although the riverside wells have water, the river itself is almost totally dry. The swimming area is down to the size of a small bathtub, lively with fish. Since we cannot refill our garden tank from the riverside well, we’re going to have to buy in water. (The well on our own land, 150 metres higher than the river, provides enough water only for our household use, and that barely.) Today it’s being delivered. It won’t be any easy drop. The tractor and tanker will have to drive partway up a steep hillside path, park near the little round wooden house and hope the hose is long enough to reach the tank from there. The Algarvians are practical people who can get things done, so I hope it will be all right.

Costa, the ever-practical Renault 4 man, continues to be reachable only by extraordinary and unconventional means. Rolie has been choking and coughing lately, and I wanted to take him in for a service. I called Costa but had no luck in getting through. The next day, Husband and I were driving through Tavira at night in the jeep when we saw a car ahead of us with no lights on. Husband, in his dutiful, slightly overbearing way, beeped at the car a couple of times to alert them to their lack of illumination. The car pulled over instead – and out from the passenger seat leapt Costa. I jumped out too, and we shook hands and discussed arrangements for Rolie, while the two men in the driving seats nodded to each other and Husband politely suggested the other put his lights on. Yesterday I took Rolie to the garage in Olhão that Costa had arranged. Within twenty-four hours, some troublesome part had been replaced and Rolie is now rolling along as smooth as anything. My dear little old polluter. I’ll be very sad when I have to let him go.

No blog next week, because we will be in England for a wedding. Thereafter comes a heavy schedule of activism. I’d imagined a quieter autumn after the summer beach events, but there’s no let-up. More on that to come.

We've stocked up for the winter with a tonelada (metric tonne) of azinheiro (holm oak). It took the delivery man half an hour to unload and stack it

We’ve stocked up ready for the winter with a tonelada (metric tonne) of azinheiro (holm oak). It took the delivery man half an hour to unload and stack it. When it goes into the wood-burner, it will smell heavenly

A couple of details from Tavira: crown in the wall of a beautiful garden, which is the former cemetery of the church of St Francis (Convento de São Francisco)

A couple of details from Tavira: crown in the wall of a beautiful garden, the former cemetery of the church of St Francis (Convento de São Francisco)

Another detail from the same site: the gecko at the foot of a pillar in what appear to be gothic side chapels, open to the elements

Another detail from the same place: the gecko at the foot of a pillar in what appear to be two gothic side chapels, open to the elements

Television show

The apricot tree by the swimming pool is laden with fruit

The apricot tree by the swimming pool is laden with fruit, which will be ripe in a week or two

The prickly pear is in flower

The prickly pear is in flower

Pink oleander are opening up all along the riverbed

Pink oleander are opening up all along the riverbed


At five o’clock this morning, Husband returned from an evening trip to Lisbon. He had gone along with other concerned local citizens to be in the audience of a TV debate called Prós e Contras, this week featuring the arguments for and against the exploration for oil in the Algarve. I didn’t go, mostly because of work demands, but also because at certain points in life my natural reserve holds me back. Not so Husband, who is, by the way, a heckler supreme.

So the plucky group from the Algarve entered the studio, having registered for seats, and found themselves outnumbered by an audience of extras, paid a small sum to be there instead of by their televisions at home, and exhorted at the beginning not to rustle their sweet papers too loudly. In the front rows were a number of key witnesses, including one ‘Algarvian citizen’ (whose Facebook page reveals him to be a geologist living in Cascais, Lisbon) who appeared so clearly to be an oil industry plant that even the moderator was taken aback, and remarked that he must to be the only ‘Algarvian’ in favour of oil exploration.

On one side of the panel, the grinning villain Paulo Carmona of the national fuel entity (ENMC) and two industry cohorts, who barely assembled a convincing argument between them. On the other side, two Algarvian mayors, of Tavira and Aljezur, and Vítor Neto, the president of NERA (association of tourism entrepreneurs in the Algarve), whose arguments ranged around quality of life, the beauty of the natural environment and by the way the fantastic contribution to the Portuguese public purse made by the tourism industry of the Algarve.

All familiar arguments, nothing I hadn’t heard before, and of course you know my stance. So I shall leave you with two observations. A brilliant lawyer, who was one of the witnesses, pointed out that the 1994 law on which many of the oil contracts were based was a retrograde step in environmental protection, overruling earlier laws, in order to open Portugal up for business, which makes sense for the era. (I’d given those lawmakers the benefit of the doubt, that the evidence for man-made climate change wasn’t powerful enough – even though it was powerful enough really. Anyway, I was wrong.) A 2013 law, which demands public consultation and environmental impact studies, is routinely ignored by the likes of Paulo Carmona; they prefer to tread the easier ground of the 1994 decree. And the second: a geologist and former oil-industry employee stepped up to say that fracking was pretty safe, and the chemical contamination of local water supplies was at barely half a percent, at which point Husband shouted, ‘You drink it then!’ (In Portuguese, naturally.)

The show has at-home audience participation in the form of a voting system. At the end, the passionate arguments for wellbeing, beauty and sustainability won: 68 per cent of the voters said No to oil in the Algarve. The coach-load of Algarvian ‘Indios’ was in party mood on the way home.


The river is clear and serene again. Fish jump to catch the insects dancing on the water surface. I only hear three turtles dive in off the rocks when I approach, instead of the eight I had become accustomed to. I wonder if some of them took the chance of high water to go exploring, or got swept away to new shores against their will. Ducks disappear on my approach too: they whoosh creakily into the air and flap off. Last year we accidentally disturbed a nesting duck, who shuffled away with wounded wing, tempting us with an easy target. We left her alone, of course, and anyway we knew she was faking it to distract us from her ducklings. These are the familiar Mallards, but wild ones, not the bread-entreating kind we find in cities.

We took delivery of five lorry-loads of water this week – for our pool. The men came round pre-delivery to assess the site. They needed to choose between their big and their little truck.

‘The concrete bridge has a weight limit of nine tons,’ said Husband, who tends to obey rules, and whose hecklerism doesn’t arise out of disdain for them.

‘Oh, we can’t read,’ said one man, nudging the other.

When we returned home at the end of the water delivery day, we were happy to see the bridge was still there.

Today we had an unscheduled visit from the câmara, who examined the pool and the surrounds and declared it all good, and said our pool licence would be with us within a week to ten days. The pool was only just complete and we hadn’t even had the chance to swim in it. So, after they’d gone, we swam for the first time in the pale jade water. We looked at the hills all around us, and decided there could be no greater joy than this.

The pool

The pool

Fancy a dip?

Fancy a dip?


Oil and water

River at its peak this week

River at its peak this week

Another view of the swollen river

Another view of the swollen river

Roman Bridge at Tavira

Roman Bridge at Tavira

Estrela, in very languid and affectionate mode this week

Estrela, in very languid and affectionate mode


It carried on raining for a few more days. Our river got higher and browner and swirlier. We went to Tavira on Thursday and the tea-coloured river was brimming. It was freshly poured Assam, with a dash of milk, the surface still moving after having just been stirred.

Then on Sunday it began to turn into the May we expect. The sun shone brightly and the days warmed up. The water in the river reduced and turned clear. We filled our cisterna from the well, which was more full than we’d ever seen it. Crystal water gushed into the cisterna and showed no sign of faltering; after three hours and twenty minutes we decided it was enough. The over-large cisterna – 30,000 litres – that supplies the house was almost at capacity. I continue to filter and boil the water for drinking, then chill it. It’s a chore, but not only does it save a little money, it also avoids acres of plastic waste. Best of all, our water tastes heavenly. It’s the most delicious water ever.

The streaky yellow serin continues to punctuate our days at home with its break-neck song. It sways from side to side, for the broadest possible cast of its notes. It resists my attempts to get near to photograph it.

Prime minister and priest

On Saturday the Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, came to Loulé, a nearby town, for a Socialist Party meeting. Naturally enough, the various activist groups gathered at the site to let their feelings known. We were there – Husband, Mother and me – as part of the Tavira em Transicão (TT) group, waving anti-oil banners. I wore my protest hat. My protest hat is not entirely successful. A few months ago Husband and I made ‘protest selfies’, and I adapted a pink trilby for the occasion. I fancied a Mad Hatter look, so I stuck letters around the brim. The hat remained on the hat stand in the hall until my eyes alighted on it as we leaving on Saturday. I thought it might serve the purpose for Loulé so I grabbed it and put it in the car.

When we got there, Mum took a restful position on a concrete bench at the back of the protesters, TT banner aloft. It was in this slightly out-of-the-way spot that she managed to be caught by a TV camera and thus made an appearance on Portuguese television news. The islanders – the people of Culatra and other sand-bank islands who are protesting against the demolitions taking place there – made the biggest splash. All in black t-shirts, marching in a group, they chanted ‘Ilhéus unidos jamais serão vencidos’ as they got into position. The chant was picked up on our side with ‘Ilhéus’ changed to ‘Algarve’, and the islanders joined back in with us.

‘Algarve unidos jamais serão vencidos!’ A united Algarve will never be defeated!

I glanced back at my mum. She was wiping away a tear from her eye. Her first demonstration, and she found it very moving.

PM Costa arrived and, to my surprise, and I imagine others’ too, he went around the ranks of protestors, smiling and talking to people. I waved and grinned as he came in our direction and he made his way towards me. Panic settled on my face at the thought that he might talk to me and catch me out as a non-Portuguese speaker. The letters on my hat had by now rearranged themselves, several slithering down into the hatband, and no longer read ‘FRACK OFF’ but the rather less effective ‘RACK’. My disconcerted features and my ambiguous hat were enough to deter the PM, who moved on to talk to someone else. He then invited a representative group to talk to him within the building. (See Asmaa’s site for an account of this.)

Mass on Sunday capped an emotional weekend. It was Pentecost, the last day of Easter, and my mum was keen to celebrate at a Portuguese church. I’d been told that Mass started around eleven. After coffee and pasteis at the café amid the sound of church bells, we entered the church at ten to eleven and selected prime pews, aisle-side for easy access to Holy Communion. Eleven o’clock came and went. I have still not learned the lesson that the start time means the time the people who are involved start to gather and get ready. Microphones were placed on the altar and two pulpits. A multimedia screen was lowered from the ceiling. A group of children – boy and girl scouts who were to take part in the service, with much obvious stage direction from the priest, and to receive special blessings – were photographed in front of the altar. The image was soon on display via the screen above. Old Portuguese ladies descended on our pew in a pincer action, squeezing us into the middle. The church slowly filled. Plastic chairs were being brought in to supplement the pews. The Mass finally got under way at about quarter to twelve. My mother likes Portuguese time, and is thinking of introducing it to Father John back in Lincolnshire.

Mandai, Senhor, o vosso Espírito e renovai a Terra

was one of the responses during the Mass. ‘Send your spirit, Lord, and renew the earth.’ We could do with some of that, I thought, and found myself wondering if the priest is up to speed with the oil exploration plans for the Algarve.

The protest trilby

The protest trilby

Husband's walnut levain. The scouts, as part of the Mass, celebrated bread by carrying in a loaf, wine with a bottle, music by holding aloft a guitar, and love by two girls hugging each other, cheek to cheek to face the congregation

Husband’s delicious walnut levain. The scouts, as part of the Mass, celebrated the riches of life: Bread, by carrying in a loaf, Wine with a wine bottle, Music by holding aloft a guitar, and Love by two girls hugging each other, cheek to cheek so as to face outwards to the congregation


New hibiscus flower, photographed one evening

New hibiscus flower, photographed one evening

The same flower the next day, the pistil much grown. The daylight colour is more accurate than the evening colour

The same flower the next morning, the pistil much grown. The daylight colour is more accurate than the evening colour

Honey bee in the Cistus crispus, one of the rock roses, with its corbicula full of pollen. This picture also shows clearly the 'undulate margin' of the 'stalkless and hairy' leaves (Wild Flowers of the Algarve) which made the identification a cert

Honey bee in the Cistus crispus, one of the rock roses, with its corbicula full of pollen. This picture also shows clearly the ‘undulate margin’ of the ‘stalkless and hairy’ leaves (Wild Flowers of the Algarve) which made the identification a cert

The river in spate

The river in spate this week

Where the turtles normally sun-bathe on the rocks and hardy guests go swimming

Where the turtles normally sun-bathe on the rocks and hardy guests go swimming

The unfordable ford

The unfordable ford

‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out.’ I didn’t realise this old saying was about the Algarve. A week ago I cast a clout in the form of a thick, winter duvet, replacing it with a light one, and woke up cold the next morning. The sky was dark and a storm was about to discharge itself all over the valley. By midday we had the fire lit and the lights on. The rain came down in sheets all day, and the next day, and one week later it is still raining.

‘We’ll be all right for water in the summer,’ said Eleuterio with a smile.

‘It’s like gold in the bank,’ said an acquaintance in the village.

The river is wide and flowing fast, its colour turned to brown. We can’t ford it in this condition. It even deterred Horse. We got a phone call from his owner to say he’d gone AWOL again and I went down to the river to look for him, but no sign. He returned to his stable later the same day. I think he must have got to the river and been spooked by the swirling torrent, so decided to pass up on his holiday for a while. I do feel sorry for any tourists who picked this week for their dose of sunshine. And much as we love the rain, I hope it eventually eases off for our next guest, my mother, who is arriving on Thursday.

São Brás de Alportel

We attended another open meeting on the prospects for the Algarve if the oil industry arrives here. This one took place in the museum of our local town of São Brás, and was well attended, all seats taken and some people standing. Most of the audience were Portuguese, only a few foreigners were there, one of whom, a disgruntled Scotsman, identified himself very early on. The presentations were given by a solar energy expert and two hardworking members of the PALP group (Plataforma Algarve Livre de Petróleo). The no-brainer energy solution that solar is for the Algarve is clear – a week like this one notwithstanding – and it was the solar engineer who spoke first. It was uncontroversial material for the audience, except for the Scotsman, who, only five minutes into an event that was to last three hours, stood up and declared it was all rubbish, all lies, and he knew what he was talking about because he used to work for the oil industry. He marched out, his stout frame quivering with indignation, and the presentation carried on without a hiccup. If he felt he really had a case, why didn’t he stay to make it?

Many passionate speeches were made by members of the audience. One or two went on longer than seemed to me entirely necessary, but that’s how it goes. I was moved by the man who spoke up for the natural industries of the Algarve: its world-beating cork, its super-carbon-soaking carob trees. And I was impressed by the town mayor who stood up at the end of the presentations and promised to put himself physically in front of any machines that come here with the aim of exploring for oil. That’s going to be harder to do at sea, mind you.

Our solar energy production at home has carried on without any hitch despite the weather. The electricity company (EDP) have been to disconnect their meter, though we are not entirely free of them yet. We have a second meter, put in to supply three-phase electricity for the bread oven; we are going to switch this to a greener provider. As well as being needed for the bread oven, it’s also a back-up for the rest of the house, but we have little recourse to it. Through our photo-voltaic panels and battery storage, we are supplying about 90 per cent of our own energy: free after the cost of installation, renewable and clean. All thanks to the blessed sun, even on cloudy days.

Here's a glimpse of the swimming pool, taken last week before rain halted work. It will have salt-treated water, a cover to preserve the water, a solar-powered pump, and solar-powered heating for cool days

Here’s a glimpse of the swimming pool, taken last week before rain halted work. The pool will have salt-treated water, a cover to preserve the water from evaporation, a solar-powered pump, and solar-powered heating for cool days

Back to the river

Another heart-shaped stone in the river

Another heart-shaped stone in the river

Poppies (für meine Schwiegermutter); from a meadow by the river

Poppies from a meadow by the riverbank

Yellow lupin

Yellow lupin (Lupinus luteus), from the riverbank

The rather odd green lavender, common in cork oak forests: this one from the riverbank

The rather odd green lavender (Lavandula viridis), common in cork oak forests: this one from the riverbank

I pulled my first garlic from the ground - a little early, but it tasted heavenly

I pulled my first garlic from the ground – a little early, but it tasted heavenly

The apricot tree in blossom

The apricot tree in blossom: this is the one that fruits first

Greenfinch pair in our conifer: poets such as Wordsworth and John Clare called them Green Linnets

Greenfinch pair in our conifer: poets such as Wordsworth and John Clare called the birds Green Linnets


A blushing Linnet (Carduelis cannabina) sang on our wire this week: such a pretty song. I don’t think I’ve heard it before. No wonder ‘me old cock linnet’ was once such a popular caged bird, enough to have appeared in music-hall song. The little streaked yellow Serin continues to fill the air with its manic, high-speed, glass-beads-shattering-on-a-stone-floor song, and the Zitting Cisticola dzips as he rises and dips on his looping flight. A pair of greenfinches is considering the conifer at the front of the house as a possible nesting site, obviously not put off by the nearby posturing of Mr Cock-of-the-Walk Sparrow. All these little bundles of feathers bursting with life and song: it seems miraculous.

I’ve had time to go back to the river this week. The cold water slides slowly over the rocks with their streamers of weed. That the water is cold I can feel through my wellies. The toad spawn is largely gone: dispersed or eaten. I hope a few eggs have found their way under rocks to develop into toadlets (or are they called tadpoles, like frogs?). I can testify to the irresistible deliciousness of the eggs, however. Not personally, exactly, but by the fact that we got our first ever good look at the mystery wading bird thanks to the toad eggs. We were about to drive over the ford and there was the bird, quite unable to fly off into the distance in its usual way, with a flash of long white rump and a complaining kyew, because it couldn’t stop dipping for toad eggs. We grabbed the chance for a close inspection – binoculars thankfully in the car – then carried on our journey and left it alone.

It’s one of a pair now, though usually we see a solitary bird. We see it often; it can’t be migratory. It’s like a Greenshank, but smaller, with a distinctly straight beak. We haven’t settled on what it is, though it’s got to be something obvious; it always is. Therefore, it cannot be a Marsh Sandpiper, even though that’s the only bird in the book that fits the bill (or beak).

Water, fire and oil

The well was almost full and we ran the crystal water into the cisterna under the front veranda for two and a half hours. That’ll do us for a good while. And I have finally faced up to something that has been on my conscience: all that bottled water we drink, most of it in plastic. We had our well water tested and were advised not to drink it: it was pure of every contamination except, possibly, bacterial. We cook with it and clean our teeth, but were drinking from bottles. We recycled them afterwards, of course, but recycling plastic barely limits the damage. Then it clicked, at last. Good heavens: just boil our own water using our solar-powered electricity, cool it and keep it in the fridge. It tastes wonderful, and this is a big weight off my mind.

The days are warm under the sun but the wind has been chilly. We still light a fire in the evenings. The metric tonne of firewood we had delivered at the start of winter ran out and, rather than get a new delivery so late in the season, we’ve been scavenging. The old woody branches of Gum Cistus, the plant that grows in such richly scented, resinous profusion all over the hills, was once a common fuel, I read, so we went collecting uprooted or fallen branches of that.

On return we took a shortcut back to the house, straight down the hill, unwieldy branches in hand. It’s steep, but the horizontal plough lines make reasonable steps, and you just need to watch where you place your foot among the stones. But the driver of a JCB had been watching us. That was dangerous, he told us when we reached the house. I don’t think I mind that the driver of a JCB in our garden is excessively safety-conscious. And, should you wonder what he’s doing there: he is completing the rectangular hole for the swimming pool.

A last word, for this week, on oil. At the tourism trade fair in Lisbon last week, the mayor of Tavira gave a speech – the Algarve being the featured region of the fair. He nodded to us in the audience and said, in Portuguese, ‘Nice T-shirts.’ Afterwards he told us it was good we were there, good to keep up the pressure, but that he had it all in hand. On 9 March we read that the Assembleia Municipal of the Tavira district had passed a motion by the Socialist Party, with 24 in favour and only 2 against, to reject and condemn the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the area, both on- and offshore. This is, of course, wonderful. But is it enough? I wish I could believe it was.


Yours truly photobombing the Algarve stand in my protest T-shirt (this photo, of course, was taken by Husband)

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