Sunday, 31 May 2009

Dry-stone walling

A completed section of a stone wall.

Think of a farming landscape. Chances are there’ll be a dry-stone wall in it somewhere. But dry-stone walls are as much a product of the landscape as vice versa, because most of them have been made from the local stones. Indeed, they serve two purposes as far as farming is concerned – livestock control (keeping farm animals in and wild animals out), and a convenient way of getting rid of all those bits of rock and stone that are littering your fields and being a nuisance, without having to lug them too far. It often seems as though the latter is the most important reason! Seriously though, to use only what you see about you could almost be the definition of “sustainable”.
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Fitting into the landscape.
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They are called “dry” stone walls not because they are only built on nice sunny days (far from it…), but because of the absence of cement. It could indeed be argued that a dry-stone wall will last longer than a cemented-together wall, not just because stone is a far more durable material than cement, but also because a wall will settle over time, and the absence of cement allows some fluidity within the structure, so that it can move a little without falling over. Plus it will look nicer, be easier to repair or take down if necessary, be a haven for wildlife (lots of small nooks and crannies for animals to live in and plants to root in), and avoid the enormous carbon-footprint due to the use of cement.
A good dry-stone wall will not last for decades – it will last for generations if not centuries. The walls we are repairing at the moment were around long before Hotel Posada del Valle was dreamed of, and only need repairing now due to damage by minor landslides, fallen trees and construction machinery. Around the farm, and indeed the whole area, are walls that have stood there longer than anyone can remember. By seeing where they are, they help us work out the past history of the land.



The three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle
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I love dry-stone walls, and enjoy building them too. They are three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles, and when you’ve finished you don’t just get a pretty picture to break up and put back in the box, you get a useful landscape feature that should still be there long after you’ve gone (the pieces are a bit heavier though…). You start with the heaviest stones as your foundations – they make a good solid base to your wall (they should be dug into the ground a little way) and they don’t need lifting into place, just rolling. Then you build up in layers of uniform depth (in an ideal world!), until you get to almost the height you want. Every now and again you include a “through-stone” to knit the two outer faces of the wall together for extra stability. To finish off, a layer of “topping” or “coping” stones are added – and this is where most of the regional diversity of walls is evident. Here in limestone Asturias it is usual to have biggish flattish rectangular stones laid across the top, but in other parts of the world it can be thin flat stones laid on top, or stood up on their ends, or other variations. The top stones bring the wall up to your desired height (enough to stop the sheep jumping over it), join the two sides of the wall together, and exert pressure to keep the rest of the wall in place. And there you have it, a dry-stone wall.
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A foundation layer ready to be built upon.

A layer of topping stones to finish the wall.

Entry written by Hugh Taylor

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Our First Farm Open Day

Sharing information is one of the most important aspects of the work we do at Hotel Posada del Valle. We have a long-term objective of trying to show that diverse cropping systems and organic farming are a sustainable and viable alternative to industrial monocropping


Talking about the narrow bed production system and crop rotation in the vegetable garden.

To this end we planned 2 farm open days for 2009 and held our first yesterday morning with just over 20 people attending. The majority of the people who attended were from eastern Asturias.

Discussing polycropping in the apple orchard

We walked around the farm and looked at the apple orchards, the sheep, horses and chickens and talked about mixed grazing. Next we visited the vegetable garden and finally the meadows where we discussed the advantages for growers and farmers of encouraging biodiversity. There was also plenty of opportunity for participants to share ideas and information. The walk lasted about 2 hours and was followed by a lovely informal light lunch prepared by Joe.

Looking at compost making (and trying to ignore the dog)

For us this was also a learning process, (not only hearing from other people about their own experiences,) but how to organise such events, question who is interested in these issues and how can we encourage people to reflect on them. From the feedback we got people had an enjoyable day, and I am sure we shall carry on organising similar events.

Discussing the benefits of biodivesity in one of the wild flower meadows.

The farm is always open for hotel guests and there is the marked farm trail with informative “panels”, and its particularly attractive at this time of year with the wild flower meadows vibrant with colour.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

A stroll through Asturias

When accepting Nigel and Joann’s invitation to write an entry for their Hotel Blog, I began to wonder what I had taken on and why. The why bit came easily. It was several years ago (6 to be precise), when we first came to Asturias and stayed as guests at the Hotel Posada del Valle – 6 years since we first fell in love with Asturias and all it had to offer – so much so we now live here permanently. The hotel was a great base for exploring and experiencing Asturias and the Picos de Europa mountains. Nestled on the side of a magnificent valley with the Suave mountain range as a backdrop, who could fail to be impressed with the stunning scenery and landscapes.
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Asturias prides itself, and markets itself on the concept of being a “natural paradise” that incorporates lush, wooded valleys, majestic mountain ranges, lowland and mountain pastures and unspoilt beaches and coastline – each offering a unique and rich tapestry of wild fauna and flora. Now what to write about?

There is no doubt that the “Natural Paradise” is a great place in which to live, work and holiday however, there are other aspects of Asturias that don’t often get the recognition they deserve – the people, their customs and their history. Of course, Asturias enjoys the trappings and benefits of modern life with cities such as Oviedo, Gijon and Aviles, busy commercial centres are never that far away - but not too distant, is a way of life that is more gentile and less pressured – a way of life that harks back to the days of the extended family, communities coming together and a shared sense of belonging.
Asturias enjoys a rich calendar of customs and practices, traditions and rituals and fiestas and celebrations – a way of life that is often to be envied in this busy and challenging world.Whilst you are visiting Asturias, I would urge you to slow down and take a leisurely stroll through Asturias – slow down and take time to experience the life and soul of Asturias.

A stroll on which you will often experience sights and sounds that have faded in modern society: young and old working together tending family vegetable plots; local farmers scything grass and loading it onto horse-drawn carts for cattle fodder; a village gathering to celebrate a religious tradition or harvest - complete with traditional dress and communal feasts; artists and craftsmen busying their time making useful artefacts such as clogs, stools and baskets; skilled musicians with traditional instruments and rousing rhythms; story tellers and dancers keeping times gone by, alive and fresh in the minds of the young; traditional games being played in village squares; mixes of generations gathering away from the heat of the day to chatter, play, laugh and share their stories.
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In every village, on every corner, in market squares, in a working field or in the shade of ancient chestnut trees there are stories to be heard, pictures to paint, memories to cherish and times for reflection. Make the most of your visit, take time to acknowledge these people – share their culture, enjoy their celebrations, have a great holiday and enjoy a gentle stroll through the life and loves of the people of Asturias.

Entry written by Ian Hicken.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Composting

Turning the steaming compost!
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The compost we produce vies with human-power as the driving force behind a successful vegetable garden like ours. Every time we take vegetables or fruit from the garden down to the hotel, the soil loses nutrients, which we must then replace by applying our home-made organic compost to the soil, thus completing the nutrient-cycle
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All materials collected and ready to assemble the heap

We operate a system of “hot” aerobic compost, which produces a fast decomposition, and kills all seeds (essential for weed control). Rather than gradually add to the heap, we stockpile raw materials (grass cuttings, vegetable peelings, weeds, chicken muckings-out, and plenty of nettles to activate the composting process), until there is enough to build a heap of at least one cubic metre.
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A layer of greens going on top of a layer of browns

A layer of stinging nettles as inoculum
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These “greens” are layered with “browns” (old leaves, hay, straw, or any fine woody material) in a ratio of 2:1, to produce a good mix and thus a fairly uniform end-product. The compost heap reaches a temperature of 60 to 70ยบC, and after about six weeks and one or two turnings, having reduced to about one quarter its original volume, it is ready to be returned to the land. And so our “waste”, via natural processes and some human effort, is converted into food

All finished! Compost being dug out for the garden

Far from being a pile of rotting rubbish, or a “dark satanic mill”, we hope you’ll agree with us that our compost heaps are really rather beautiful.

Welcome

Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.