1: The Somerset Levels: walking with Chica…

Although Chica started life in Andalusia in Spain, most of her five years have been spent in Somerset UK. Somerset is large county (by UK standards) in the South-west of England which many people just drive through to reach the more popular holiday destinations of Devon and Cornwall. The exception being the annual influx of huge numbers attending Glastonbury festival every June.

Somerset has a wonderfully varied landscape encompassing the coast from the Bristol Channel to the Devon border, several ranges of hills of which the Mendips and the Quantocks are the largest; and here in the middle is a unique and fascinating area of wetlands known as The Somerset Levels. This is where Chica goes most days, so she’s inviting you to join her on her mornings walks.

The unmistakable silhouette of Glastonbury Tor sits at the edge of the northern part of the Levels, an area suitably known as The Avalon Marshes, and the nature reserves here are the closest to our home. The history and mythology of Glastonbury help to enhance the feeling of timelessness here. The Levels were once completely under water every winter but a part of an old wooden trackway constructed so people could travel across the marsh was found perfectly preserved in the peat soil, so perfect that it could be carbon dated to exactly 3806BC. The acidity of the peat soil acted as an excellent preserving agent.

In more recent times, the Levels have been drained using a network of ditches known locally as rhynes (pronounced ‘reens’) and the peat soil has been cut and used as a fuel and fertiliser to such a degree that it is now limited to a very small scale in order to preserve the unique ecology. More about the area to come but for now, here are the images from this morning’s walk at Shapwick Heath Nature Reserve, which is managed by the Hawk and Owl Trust.

If you have enjoyed this blog, please remember we are raising money for Spanish rescue dogs. We’ll be back in Spain to complete our walk on the GR7 in the autumn but, in the meantime, our charities are struggling to survive in the current crisis. If you can, please donate – details here

International Podenco Day

Chica says it’s a very special day for her today. It’s International Podenco Day and that it exists at all says something about the recognition that these wonderful dogs are finally getting after being ‘the forgotten dogs of Spain’ for so long. We knew nothing about them until we got Chica and now we love them enough to want to raise money to help them. Hopefully, later this year we will back on track. Literally! In the meantime, here just a bit about this fantastic breed.

The podenco has been around for centuries. It is believed that the Phoenician merchants (an ancient civilization originating in Lebanon), were the first to bring these types of dogs over to the Mediterranean. They introduced them when travelling along the coastal trade routes from Africa to Spain as far back as the 8th century BC.

The dogs were probably landed on the Islands off the coast and this is how some of the Island specific podenco-type dogs developed. These included the Podenco Canario, from the Canary Islands, and the Podenco Ibicenco (the Ibizan Hound). There is also the Podengo Português, native to Northern Portugal.

The dogs began to flourish as rural hunting dogs across Spain, and the different types of podenco started to develop across the regions, adapting to the kind of terrain they were hunting on. They are more robust and suited to hunting rougher terrain than the other commonly used Spanish hunting dog; the galgo (greyhound).

Today, the podenco is still used as a hunting dog but rather than being revered, they are often seen as just a tool. They are frequently abused, neglected, and abandoned. They sometimes learn to survive on the street or are surrendered to perreras (high kill shelters) or the owners kill them at the end of the hunting season. It’s cheaper to breed another litter than feed a dog when it’s not working.

As their plight is gaining more recognition, there are now several charities that work to offer homes to podencos, nationally and internationally. This means that they are gradually becoming more well known and welcomed as pets but there is a long way to go before they will be safe from cruelty and abuse.

So in celebration, here are some of my favourite pictures of Chica and some others, to illustrate what a varied and stunning breed the podenco is. Many of the pictures are courtesy of SOS Podenco Rescue and are dogs they have rescued. Please consider helping them out in these extra difficult times. You can donate via PayPal at sospodencorescue@gmail.com.

Update 1: Applewood, Somerset, UK

Well, here we are nearly two weeks after arriving back in the UK. It took a week to re-orientate and now doing the walk feels like a distant memory. Fortunately, the weather has been pretty good which has helped (and pretty awful in Spain too) so some consolation.

We are very lucky that we have some space here which also means there is a lot to occupy us during lockdown. Our storage shed had got very damp and Tom knew before we went away that it would need a lot of work to fix. In our absence, the goats managed to get inside. We had removed some of the more important things before we left but they saved us the trouble of sorting out the rest – it was trashed. Bless!

We had also decided to fence off a bit of the orchard to save the few remaining trees. Having the goats has been brilliant for keeping the brambles down and the hedge around the field trimmed. Sadly, they have also killed off many of the original cider apple trees by barking them so this will keep them out (I can hear other goat owners howling with laughter!) We can but try! We will plant some other small fruit bushes in there too.

Back in October, we took on a couple of rescue ponies. The moment they arrived it started raining and within days the ground was almost impossible to negotiate because it was so churned up. Now it has almost dried out so yesterday we took the truck up there and drove it backwards and forwards to flatten it down. Tedious, especially avoiding dogs and goats, but effective!

The spring flowers are out, especially the primroses, which grow like weeds here and really cheer us up on grey days. The magnolias are in bloom too and the cherry is blossoming! I’ve been at work in the vegetable garden which has been shamefully neglected the last couple of years, but no excuse now. Hoping to start planting this weekend – in the meantime there is no shortage of rhubarb!

The dogs, of course, are very happy back on their familiar territory and, though disappointed, we are happy too now we are used to the idea. It’s not a bad place to be holed up! We send all our best wishes to our readers and fervently hope you are all safe and well. Don’t forget the dogs need our help more than ever so if you are able, please send the coffee/beer money you are saving. Details here

Gerald and Merlin are really good mates and love this game.

Day 34 and the end of the trail – for now!

It all happened so fast! Last week we were happily planning the next section of the route. The next thing we knew, the caravan site had closed its gates. At first, the lovely owner said we could still walk or move to another site, but it soon became clear this was not the case. Spain was on lockdown! So we decided we would go back to our base in Jimera and wait it out there. However, we quickly realised that anyone going back into the village might be less than welcome. And we’d be housebound, with no garden and not knowing when we could leave. Tom has to start work in a few weeks (as a builder, so that may still be possible) or we will run out of money.

It was a strange drive back through an almost deserted Madrid, stopping in services as there were no sites open. We chatted to others heading back to northern Europe as well as the UK, sharing our stories. We did a 10 hour solid stint to beat the French border closure (only to find we would have got through anyway) and finally crossed on an almost empty Eurotunnel train yesterday. No extra checks – just straight through. Which is good but sort of not! We’d just come from the second most affected country in Europe. But we will stay in for a week or two anyway and console ourselves by binge watching films and eating ready meals – neither of which we’ve done for for the last ten weeks.

We were doing this walk to raise money for Spanish rescue dogs and we’d very much hoped to reach Galgos del Sol on the east coast by the end of April, having raised a substantial amount for them and the other charities we’re supporting. This is so disappointing, especially as they are going to be under huge pressure in the current situation as they can’t move dogs out to potential adopters. Please, if you can, donate just the cost of that coffee you couldn’t have this week to help them, and cheer us up just a little. You can find the details here.

I will continue to blog about our mini adventures with our menagerie here in Somerset and as soon as it’s possible, we’ll be back to continue Chica’s Challenge!

Our thanks and best wishes go to all those we met along the way and, of course, to Chica and Merlin, our intrepid canine trekkers. Arfy Arfwit may not have tackled the trail but his vital contribution was to keep us entertained. Lastly, a huge thank you to all our readers as without you, I’d have been talking to myself! And now:

Day 34: Timar to Burchales 11k

During the night, I was disturbed by a dog outside the tent. I got up to investigate (leaving a completely unconcerned Merlin still snoring). The dog disappeared but I spent a while looking at the night sky. The stars are so bright here and I tracked the paths of the satellites.

Up and packed by 8.30 and off to the village of Lobras where we stopped for elevenses. By now it was pleasantly warm and the trail very enjoyable as we continued to the much larger town of Cadiar where we feasted on fresh bread, cheese and chocolate.

This fortified us for the last leg to Burchales where we waited in a bar, supping cold beer (Merlin had water) until Gill arrived to pick us up, blissfully unaware that this would be our last day!

Day 33: Trevelez to Timar 13k

A long hike steadily upward and across the hillside this morning through pines. A lovely trail with a large leat/watercourse at half height contouring around hillside. High pastures with cows being watered by sprays fed from above.

Once over the top I was in strong sunshine on vast scrub hillside with grasses, herbs, small flowers and gorse all over. Rather like our Somerset Quantocks. We contoured across and then steadily down to Juviles where path emerged onto the main street. I took some pics around town then off as the bar was shut.

We hiked up and out of town through a high valley then along the top of a gorge. Around the hill and back into the sun for walk down to Timar and get where I had my spaghetti bolognese and a coffee.

As I left town to look for a campsite, I found myself in an area of old open cast mining which felt like a moonscape and was tricky walking so carried on and found a good spot by a stream in an olive grove. As soon as the tent went up, Merlin made himself comfortable and went to sleep. I followed close behind.

Day 32: Trevelez to Busquistar 12k

Trevelez is the next place on the route after Busquistar but it is a long trek from the camp site. Gill is more a lark than an owl so we decided I’d do this backwards (!) starting at Trevelez and walking back to Busquistar giving a shorter drive in the evening. Looking at the map, I had thought that this would mean a mainly downhill walk but, as it turned out, there were still some steep climbs.

Leaving Trevelez to the north with both Chica and Merlin, I crossed the trickle that is all there currently is of the Rio Chico and climbed steadily, meeting a couple of Welsh collies and a horse with a tent for a stable! On the hills it was mainly shrubs including hawthorn giving off the familiar heady smell of May blossom (March blossom here!) and the many small valleys were wooded with tall shady pines.

After lunch in the company of a curious lizard I continued on a general downhill trajectory through more farmland and eventually into deciduous woods. Both dogs had a wonderful time. As yesterday’s blog was a bit short on pictures, I’ve included a few more today.

Day 31: Bubion to Busquistar 9k

Got back to Bubion about 11.30 and took the path up out of town and before too long came across my friend from yesterday having a break. So we continued together through terrain and surroundings very similar to the last couple of days but no less spectacular for that.

We passed through the tiny hamlet of Capilerilla and then onto the the larger village of Pitres, where we had a fuenta stop. From there we crossed the El Bermejo stream before reaching Atalbeitar (pop 40). Next stop Portugos and a huge sweet chestnut tree with convenient seating where we took a shady short break before joining the road.

Here we came by the Agua Agria de Portugos, a very famous watering hole because it is so rich in iron. This is supposed to be very good for you but tastes like liquid rust. Much more inviting were the roadside stalls selling a variety of fruit, nuts and seeds including figs dipped in locally made chocolate. This sustained us on the last leg to Busquistar.

Day 30: Canar to Bubion 12k

I had quite a job talking Gill into driving back to Canar this morning but she found it less alarming the second time. Quite a relief, I really didn’t fancy walking up!

So with Chica and Merlin in tow, we set off into the hills shortly to meet up with a German chap just packing away his sleeping bag. He was on the GR7 too so we hooked up for the day. After a while I overcame my misanthropy and enjoyed the company.

The path continued along the hillside giving more magnificent views to the south including a waterfall hundreds of feet high, plunging into a bowl it had created below. We passed a sign to a Buddhist retreat – not hard to see why this beautiful location was chosen.

In contrast, the next village of Soportujar is infamous, apparently, as a home of witchcraft. The legend is that any child who wandered outside of the village on their own would be kidnapped by the local witches and taken to the cave of The Eye of the Witch. There they would dispatched and their fat sold to the local dairy to be turned into milk, cream and cheese. A good way of keeping the kids from straying!

I thought this was just a piece of tourist fodder (it reminded me of Wookey Hole Caves at home) but when we approached the bronze statue of the witch guarding the cave Chica behaved very oddly; refusing to go anywhere near and growling at her, hackles raised. No way could she be persuaded to go near. Maybe there’s something in it, after all.

As it started to get quite chilly, we reached Pampaneria. This is a real tourist magnet but still a very attractive village with lovely little back alleys. Bubion is immediately above so a stiff climb finished our walk and I said goodbye to my companion as he found somewhere to stay for the night. He was finding the camping a bit chilly, I think.

Gill turned up and we drove a couple of kilometres to the next village where we had discovered there was a restaurant offering Indian food. After two months here and no sign of a curry house this was a real treat. The food was excellent (if a little pricey), freshly cooked and promptly served. A delicious end to the day!

Day 29: Lanjaron to Canar 8k

Bit of a slow start today so not on route until midday. With both Chica and Merlin in tow we left Lanjaron up through narrow cobbled alleys and tracks to high above the town. We passed through pine forest and out into open grasslands which reminded me of the top of Exmoor, though no doubt warmer and drier here than there today.

The descent back through scrub took me via an encampment of yurts, benders and shacks that continued down through the valley, getting more substantial the nearer town we got. There is a thriving alternative community around Orgiva and this is clearly where many people live peacefully off grid.

A very hot steep climb up to Canar followed and, after a cooling splash in the fuenta, the dogs agreed (!) it was a good idea to stop for a beer and call it a day!

We are delighted that you are reading our blog. We are doing this to raise money for some of the amazing charities rescuing dogs in Spain, especially the hunting breeds such as galgos (greyhounds) and podencos who are so often brutalised and abandoned by their owners.
Click here to find out more about the charities we support and please, please consider donating. Every penny/cent helps!
Thank you so much from Tom, Chica, Merlin, Arthur and Gill.
xxxx

Day 28: Niguelas to Lanjaron 19k

Authors note: With Chica seemingly recovered, we finally left Jimera on Sunday and took the caravan over to Orgiva, a town in the Alpajaras area below the Sierra Nevada. After a day to reorientate, Tom is back on the trail taking Merlin to give Chica one more recovery day.

Gill dropped us off on the outskirts of Niguelas and we walked up through the central square, then down cobbled streets to the northern end of the town. From there the path dipped down through the river valley and up the other side through orchards of almonds and olives. There are very old irrigation channels everywhere here, laid originally by the Moors, I imagine, and still a vital source of water today as they harness the meltwater from the mountains above. There are diversionary gates so they can serve different areas.

Climbing up from there on a very pleasant narrow path into pine forest the wind increased and it became quite dusty as the ground here is so dry. Rain is so desperately needed at the moment.

Traversing the contours of the hilltops there were wonderful views and despite the rocky ground, every spare inch of soil is planted with olives.

As the track wound its way down the trees changed from evergreen pines to deciduous forest until we reached the attractive spa town of Lanjaron where I had a coffee while I waited for my personal taxi!