THE FOLKS WHO WOULD LIVE ON THE HILL (reprise)

The story of the building of our home in southern Spain – in pictures

We’re often asked by people we meet, and who are familiar with our life story, if we watch the TV show, Grand Designs (on the UK’s Channel 4). For the uninitiated, in 1993 Dido and I together with a small team of local builders and on a limited budget built a house on a rugged hilltop in the south of Spain. Grand Designs is a program which follows people – often young-to-middle aged couples (as we then were in 93) – as they undertake unusual and ambitious house-building projects similar to our own, with much of the drama emanating from all the trials and tribulations of the process. Invariably dreams turn into nightmares and then finally – though not always – the original dreams are more or less attained. And perhaps because there was so much pain, mental and physical, during our building experience my answer to the question is that I rarely watch the program. The few times I have it usually culminates in me experiencing a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially when the subject suckers – I mean subject couples – go through their own darker moments and mini-disasters.

Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding clichéd, for us, as with most of the Grand Design people, it all worked out in the end and we now have an extraordinary house and home. The question of whether or not it was worth it, and if, given the choice we would do it all again is something of a moot point. Certainly, we wouldn’t do it the same way again. We wouldn’t restore an existing ruin and tie it into a new additional structure – a process that doubled both the time and cost of the project, and necessitated Dido and I becoming labourers on our own build to speed things up and to save costs. No, if we did it again, we’d do what the locals here do – bulldoze the site into a flat platform and build a completely new structure.

This is something of a second instalment to an earlier post called Walking over Almonds and some of the background, including what the original semi-ruined cottage looked like can be found there. Suffice to say here that with one or two expedient modifications from the original plans the build took around six months, beginning in the summer of 1993, and used up every penny we had (although at least we didn’t go into debt). Our architect was the gifted – Bartlett trained – Seattle-based Mark Travers (who we paid with one of my huge oil canvases of the Atacama). Between the three of us (with some help from a structural engineer friend of Mark’s) we came up with a well-built house exactly suited to our needs and passions, and, for a contemporary Andalusian dwelling, unusually sympathetic to its immediate environment.

This is an unavoidably larger post than usual, though I hope there is much of interest here, for those who know us as well as for those who do not, and perhaps even one or two useful pointers for those thinking of embarking upon a similar project…

Our hilltop property was only accessible by a goat track so the first thing we had to do was get a JCB to cut us a drive. For some reason, our beautiful Maremma Sheepdog Aura liked taking naps underneath it and getting covered in grease…
Said driveway…
The first priority was to build our main water tank. Until it was completed we had to schlep over to the local spring three or four times a day to provide the builders with water for cement etc. It took several weeks to finish. Here is the tank progressing. With all its steel it was the most expensive element of the build…
Here’s the JCB just about to demolish the old pigsty…
The water tank and bodega were excavated beneath the east side of the old cottage. They would eventually become the ground story of the east side addition, comprising our bedroom and library. That’s me inspecting the completed water tank. With its 38,000 litre capacity (designed to capture rain water from the roof and terraces) its completion represented significant progress…
It didn’t take long for us to realise that to stay on time and on budget we would have to get involved physically in the building. This was my “first day” and I’m using a pickaxe to make a pipe channel for the 5,000 litre grey water tank…
Here’s Dido cleaning hundreds of roof tiles reclaimed from the old house. The finished roof eventually comprised 1 in 3 old tiles and looked all the better for it…
One of dozens of truck deliveries…
Baldomero (our foreman), Paco and Pepe eating their lunch and taking shelter from a sharp north wind by one of Dido’s dry stone redoubts…
Two thirds of the house beginning to take shape – looking across the main room (the restored old cottage) towards the library and main bedroom…
A beer break – Dido up an almond tree, as usual…
We had to remove the old wooden roof of the original cottage then rebuild the tops of half-meter thick walls. Much of the resulting rubble was reused as aggregate in various parts of the new construction. However, this entire process was hugely time consuming. Mark and his engineer buddy (who had also worked on the Seattle Space Needle) came up with this trussed roof solution for preserving the old walls and making sure they could tolerate the weight of the new steel and concrete roof. The rods were meant to be temporary, but we liked them and kept them. Dido is standing in our front door…
The east addition roof taking shape…
We loved seeing the tiles go over the screed – real progress at last (one in three tiles was from the original house). Incidentally, Dido was on hoist duty, and we later estimated that she winched up more than 2,500 buckets of cement and mortar all told during the roof construction…
The trussed roof allowed us to have very high ceilings without the need for supporting walls or pillars. This is the restored main room. The original cottage was a warren of four tiny rooms…
Fortunately the library was sufficiently finished for us to move into it by the autumn. The stove in the background (christened Dalek) was a reclaimed BBQ and it doubled up as our oven…
These gesso’d book shelves looked great, but during the wet winter months they absorbed moisture like a bath sponge, ruining hundreds of our books into the bargain. You live and learn I guess…
Aura loved lying on the cool sand, much to the annoyance of the builders trying to finish our floors…
Our kitchen was constructed entirely from local materials including a fine wood-burning stove from Asturias, only cost us about £450 with labour!!
The south aspect taking shape, with the “original cottage” section and old casemate wall already rendered, while Dido works on her drystone redoubt
The east addition nearing completion. Here one can see how the library and bedroom form an upper story above the bodega and water tank. The little window is our en suite bathroom…
This is how the main room looks today…
And the bar and kitchen…
And the library, now with modular wooden shelving…
And our bedroom…
And finally, our emerging garden,
about five years ago. Welcome to Finca Carmel!

LEAVING SPIRES

a farewell to oxford

Oxford has been our on and off home now for the past ten years, and as someone from a family with far more connections to “the other place”, it has taken me most of that decade to come to really like and appreciate the city.

Typically, as luck would have it, my liking of Oxford has more or less coincided with our leaving the city for pastures new.

And pastures don’t come much more picturesque, or quintessentially English than those of South Park on the eastern edge of the ancient town centre.

And as for those famous dreaming spires, there’s nowhere they look dreamier than from the steepling fields of South Park on a late summer’s evening.

This view of Oxford; largely unchanged since Matthew Arnold penned his famous verse; and not that different from when Oliver Cromwell’s besieging army was camped on this very spot; and when this great dead English oak was a foot-high sapling, has gradually ingrained itself into the core of my consciousness, and something I shall carry with me and treasure for the rest of my days.

CAROB, SNAILS AND SARDINES

a postcard from a normal day in malaga…

Whenever people ask us about our commercial crops on our little Andalusian farm, we always mention olives and our almonds. Grapes were once a commercial crop for us – in the form of our Malaga-style wine – but that was many years ago. And, while it’s true we also once sold a bushel of pink grapefruit to a greengrocer in our local village, the only other crop we ever used to sell regularly was carob (algaroba in Spanish). Known as boxer in Britain, carob was best known as a chocolate substitute, especially during wartime, when supplies of the real stuff were sparse, and these days, it’s popular as candy (in the States), ground for flour, eaten as a dried fruit and made into syrups and even alcoholic drinks. But, in the 90’s it’s popularity seriously waned, and the price for the brown pods and seeds fell so low, it cost us more in diesel to get the carob to the factory than we got paid for it.

However, the emergence of veganism has seen a massive spike in the demand for carob, and a corresponding rise in its value, making it a worthwhile crop once again. And, in the event we were paid a handsome €60.00 for our modest three sacks, giving us in turn, a pleasant excuse to continue along the road, to spend our earnings – somewhat ironically – on some delicious, decidedly non-vegan Malagueño cuisine…

Adding our 50kilos (highlighted) to the mountain of carob at our local depot/factory.
Then off to Malaga to spend our not-so-hard earned pocket money – firstly on these delicious caracoles (snails) in a spicy, cumin-infused sauce (a recipe from Córdoba)...
…Then down to the beach, for a few espetos (wooden skewers) of sardines , roast against smouldering olive wood. This shot, taken through a Perspex windshield, gives the scene a slightly wobbly look!

Gibraltar’s Very Little Italy

We’ve been to Gibraltar several times over the past two years and each time we seem to discover something new. For such a small territory it’s surprising how many little secrets it manages to keep from the general tourist and day tripper, who’s itinerary seems restricted to a cable car ride to the top of the Rock, finished off with a pint at the pub and a plate of fish and chips. Not that there’s anything wrong with these activities, which do at least ensure the preservation of hidden gems like Rosia and Catalan Bay for the lucky few.

Our discovery of Catalan Bay was particularly accidental, as we had to arrange a last minute trip to Gibraltar, and the only room available was at the Caleta Hotel, on the relatively remote (remote only in a Gibraltarian sense), sparsely populated, eastern side of the Rock. But while the the bay on which the hotel sits may be named for Catalonia, the seaside hamlet along which it resides is far more reminiscent of a Sorento on the Italian Riviera – albeit, in microcosm.

Moreover, with the Caleta Hotel being Italian owned, with an Italian head chef, this tiny enclave has a feel and an atmosphere all of its own.

I would recommend the hotel as a decent place to stay (comfortable rooms and a bar and restaurant with a stunning, maritime outlook), but it’s to be torn down in January, with a Hilton rising up in its place. Nevertheless, for those visiting Gibraltar for more than a day or so, Catalan Bay is a charming place to visit.

Despite the overcast skies, I think these photos offer something of the peaceful, secluded atmosphere of the place.

“HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL…”*

as early signs of spring offer a little hope…

Despite some recent inclement weather, including frost and even a dusting of snow, the Axarquia is showing early signs of Spring. The pictures here, all taken over the past week, on and around our finca (small holding) in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda remind us of nature’s imperviousness to the current dystopia we find ourselves condemned to inhabit for the foreseeable future.

Sometimes, pictures (even enhanced iPhone snaps) are far more eloquent than mere words…

Our hilltop finca, looking south west…
(Looking west) An almond tree, already in leaf
Marcona (almond) blossom…
(Looking north-east) Our local pueblo, Canillas de Aceituno, sitting beneath Mount Maroma and the Sierra Tajeda, from our house…
(Looking north-west) The pueblo of Periana and the Alfarnate countryside…
(Looking south-east) across our “main road” toward Arenas…
(Looking south-west) From our south vineyard, a neighbouring cottage and the Rio Velez valley beyond…
Fresh orange juice every morning, assured…
(Looking east-by-south east) But it’s the almonds stealing the show…
“Shepherd’s delight”? Here’s hoping…!

* From Alexander Pope (An Essay on Man – 1734)

MOODY BLUES AND STORMY HUES…

…AND HOW I DERIVED SOMETHING POSITIVE FROM OUR MOST NEGATIVE EPISODE

The past twelve Covid-19-infested months included, by far the bleakest time my wife Dido and I have shared together was our enforced eight-month sojourn in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, back in the early 1990’s, described in earlier posts ( here and here).

The Distant Breakwater – oil on canvas – 1995

Yet, few circumstances, however dire, are so unremitting that they totally lack the odd moment of emotional uplift. And for us, in Boulogne, these moments were generally provided during our regular weekend strolls across the local beach.

The Harbour Entrance – oil on canvas – 1995

The proverbial bracing sea air (even when tainted by the odours emitting from the local fish cannery on the southerly breezes); the angry waters of the English Channel, inky blue-black beneath a vast sky of tumbling clouds; distant rain squalls appearing like grey curtains drawn across the serrated horizon; and shafts of silver sunlight occasionally breaking through the blanket of cumulous like spotlights illuminating a white flecked, cobalt stage in perpetual motion – all conspired to blast us temporarily from our glum mental state.

The Fish Cannery – oil on canvas – 1995

In a way similar to how blues music comforts and eases the spirit, by both reflecting back, and articulating the nature and source of the angst, so those tumultuous blue-tinged scenes reminded us of our innate love for life and the adventures it offers. The three palette-knifed oils here, painted a year or two later in my southern Spanish studio, celebrate those precious moments that gave us the reason and the energy to persevere. A particularly apposite recollection I think for these troubled times…

DRAWING LIGHT AND SHADE…

and the dramatic potential of the humble pencil…

My recent post on line drawing was so well received that I thought I would follow it up with this look at a set of my more studied drawings from 1996.

The images here will be familiar to some, as they form the basis of one of my most successful and enduring themes, which I returned to many times over the course of decade or more. It all started with a casual photo-shoot on the sunny south terrace of our Spanish home, when my wife Dido (the blonde lady in these pictures) and Lynne, an old ballet pal of hers, performed a variety of impromptu poses for my camera. Mostly, they involved dance (see this related post), but they also acted these three, far more contemplative vignettes.

Unlike line drawing sketches, these take account of light and shade as much as form, giving them a more obvious dramatic content. But, as with line sketching, often, what is left undrawn, is as important to the feel of the picture as what is drawn. In the case of these works, it was my intention that the whiteness of the untouched paper in contrast to the painstakingly executed figures, and the shadows they contain and cast, would accentuate the feeling of the harsh Spanish sun, saturating the tender friendship of the two girls.

All in all, I think they succeed pretty well, and for me at least, remain precious moments captured in lead.

Dido and Lynne 1 – 1996 – pencil on paper
Dido and Lynne 2 – 1996 – pencil on paper
Dido and Lynne 3 – 1996 – pencil on paper

WHERE THE GRASS IS (nearly) ALWAYS BROWNER…

…BUT WHERE THE ALMOND blossom is ALWAYS WHITER

I nearly titled this as a third straight “yearning” post, in the sense that after three months lock-down here in Oxford we are desperate to get back to our finca in southern Spain. But seeing as we are actually returning there tomorrow I decided on a catchier and hopefully more optimistic heading.

In fairness, when we’ve been in Spain for as long as we’ve now been in England there’s plenty I miss about our other lives in London and Oxford, but the longing is rarely as intense as what we are experiencing right now for our Andalusian home.

And perhaps there’s the clue; the fact that our little farm in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda is the nearest thing Dido and I have ever had to a settled home. We’ve certainly owned it for more than three times as long as any of our previous homes (separately or together), and then there’s all the sweat and blood we’ve dripped into the building of our house and the rocky soil upon which it stands.

But perhaps, more than all of that, it’s simply the way the setting of our finca has ingrained itself into the fabric of our being through the sheer power of its ridiculous beauty.

So, although we missed wonders like the almond blossom display this year, thanks to about thirty years of memories, and images like the ones on show here, we can never truly miss them – they live inside of us, rendering us unusually fortunate.

STARTING OUR 28th YEAR AT FINCA CARMEL

WIshing all my friends, viewers and followers a happy 2020

The single most impressive feature of our lives since we purchased our mountain finca (smallholding) in southern Spain, and becoming part-time farmers in 1993, is how it dramatically increased our awareness of the passing seasons. A perception intensified by having planted the best part of a thousand trees, and then watched as they gradually transformed our immediate environment.

While there are many sobering aspects to the passing of the years, we have found both solace and joy through the metamorphosis of our humble hilltop. Hopefully, it will continue past a good few new years yet!

The house and finca in the summer of 1995, two years after our move to the Axarquia region of Andalusia, and 18 months after completion of the house. Some of our new trees can just be made out, such as the young cypresses lining the edge the drive. At this point, the farm comprised primarily the existing north vineyard (to the lower left of the house) and almond trees. We relied totally on solar energy and rain water, collected in a large tank constructed beneath the house…
…and this is virtually the identical scene taken this Boxing Day in the winter of 2019. The north vineyard is still there, and some of the almond trees, plus the cypresses are now 25 years older – and taller. However, in 2004 we were finally attached to mains electricity (and the Internet) allowing us to set up a remote control irrigation system and thus plant orchards (mostly olive, citrus and avocado) and a garden of sorts, and to surround ourselves with tall trees.

UNEXPECTED TERPSICHORE…

…and how two ice cream ladies ended up being PORTRAYED on the wall of the chilean embassy in london…

During our 1991 visit to Chile we took a day-trip from Santiago to Valparaiso, to have a look at the National Congress building, but mainly to try and get a feel for one of the great ports of the Americas. In the event, the building was nothing to write home about – an unresolved confusion of brutalist classicism – and the port area was more plain sleaze than the Hemingway sleaze I’d been hoping for. Sadly, we lacked the time to explore more of what was once described as “the Jewel of the Pacific”.

Although blurry, this photo inspired not only the oil painting below, but later an entire series of my most abstract attempts at capturing human movement…

However, as often happens when travelling, memorable moments occur when least expected, and from surprising sources. In this case for example, it occurred buying ice creams in a gelateira by the bus station, when my wife Dido and our companion Lynne got into conversation with the two ladies running the shop, about Chile’s national folk dance; the Cueca.

This spontaneous display perfectly captured a trait of understated assuredness that we often encountered in Chile – a trait for which the Cueca is the perfect expression…

How or why what happened next, I can’t quite recall, as the two women, in the sweetest and most obliging of gestures suddenly broke into song and started performing the dance. Fortunately I had my camera to hand and was able to get a visual – if slightly unfocused – record of the impromptu outbreak of traditional Terpsichore. Happenstance often resulted in my camera being my sketchbook, and this turned out to be a prime example as I found the fuzzy photos more than adequate reference for a later work back in my studio.

…a trait I endeavoured to capture in this,* and at least two more versions of the painting, La Cueca. The version here was included in an exhibition I had the following year at the Embassy of Chile in London, and which was subsequently purchased for the embassy. I often wondered what the two ladies would have thought if they knew?

* This was one of the first times I used black ground on a canvas (I’d often used the technique in commercial work), and I found it a dramatic contrast to the broad, bright impasto gestures knifed on top. The painting was about five-foot (about 152 cm) square.