Moss and stones

Monday, May 18, 2020, 17:13

The view to the west from the Run do Alto do Cavalo

In the previous blog I said that, though there's little to do up here on our mountainside, life is not without its simple joys. One is creating a garden from the jungle of weeds that used to exist on the terrace below our house. (I may show you that some other time.) Another is the freedom to walk up a quiet rural road or to branch off into the woodland. Today I'm going to take you on one of my rambles.

To read about my route and see what I found, click here

Turning left out of my gate and heading west I pass the hamlet of Esmorigo, where the first neighbours I come across, Dona Maria and Sr Daniel, live. They are a couple in their 80s.

Dona Maria is in her yard taking in her washing. She is almost always clad in an all-enveloping apron and a sun hat. Before the lockdown caused by Covid-19, dressed in her very best and almost unrecognisable, she would walk past our house on her way to church on Sundays.

"Olá Dona Maria. Como vai? Tudo bem?" (Hello Dona Maria. How are you? Everything OK?)

"Vai-se andando, obrigada. Boa caminhada." (Things are jogging along fine, thank you. Have a good walk.)

Sr Daniel would not accompany her to church. Instead, like today, he would be checking on his bees or his sheep, scrambling up precipitous, narrow, uneven slopes on his crutches. He has had rather unsuccessful hip replacements so he hobbles about slowly but refuses to let his disability get the better of him. This year, though, I haven't seen his sheep.

"What's happened to Sr Daniel's sheep," I asked my neighbour Fátima.

"Oh, he turns 90 this year so he's decided to give them up.

Good grief! He's kept up his shepherding on crutches to the end of his 9th decade! What a hero!

Past Esmorigo I come to the football pitch, sadly silent these days. It will be good to have the lights on for the team to practise as soon as group activities are allowed again. Here I can't help pausing to admire a fine clump of heather.

A fine clump of heather by the Esmorigo football pitch

Whereas the heather in my native Yorkshire blooms in August, here it is a winter flowering variety. These hills are never as rich and unvaried a purple as the North York Moors: instead, Minhoto heather is interspersed with the butter yellow of gorse and the acid yellow of broom, a patchwork of colours like a piece of Kaffe Fassett knitting.

The cross roads and the name post of the road/track I am taking

Now I've reached the crossroads. Do I follow the main road towards Vilar do Monte? Or turn left down to Caldelas and Progo? Perhaps instead I should I take a quick walk through the pine woods straight ahead. Or maybe take the long track down to Cepões?

No, none of these. Today I'm going to follow the Rua do Alto do Cavalo - Horse Uplands Road - though in fact this is not so much a road as a stony track across the bare hillside, where the fires of a few years ago burned down the trees. I'm taking it to the deciduous woods at the top of the rise. From there I can see a lovely view over Cepões and its neighbouring villages towards the road that skirts another hill on its way to Viana do Castelo. You can see it in a picture, taken on a cloudy day, in the top photo.

An oak tree with a mossy trunk and mossy boulder nearby

I love this track through the woods because it is full of old oaks with mossy trunks and millennial boulders deposited higgledy piggledy by some cataclysm, whose cause we can never know, only imagine. These huge rounded rocks come both singly and in clusters, mostly covered in moss. Here and there, though, are patches of grey lichen and sometimes a plant with tall narrow spires. (Doesn't the one on the left below look like a fat toad?)

Two pictures of mossy boulders

At the top of the rise there is a clearing amongst the oaks and some tall pine trees which have clearly been planted rather than growing there naturally. By whom? And why here? I have no idea. In normal times you can actually drive up here and park if you want to shorten your walk or take a longer one higher up the mountain because, to the left, just glimpsed in the distance, is a tarmacked road called the Rua da Costa do Vale - Hillside Road – which comes up from the main road below and ends in the pine glade.

A clearing amongst pines

If you turn right, you come out onto the open hillside, where you can see a tiny cluster of remote houses. Their existence explains a bus stop on the main road, apparently in the middle of nowhere. How and why anyone came to live up here is hard to imagine, especially when winter comes with its driving rains and frosty temperatures. The only income from this land would seem to be from a flock of goats whose bells can often be heard tinkling in the distance. Straight ahead the track leads up to a wide, open plain at the top of the mountain.

Today, however, we are going down the metalled road to the left, looking at the wildflowers which sprout on the verges. Although known as the 'flor do mês de maio' - the May flower - lemon yellow broom has blossomed throughout April and at its feet have been little pale blue stars which grow from bulbs. What are they called? I don't know but if you do, please write in and tell me.

Flowering broom and little blue flowers

As the year has turned the broom flowers have become seed pods and the blue stars are gone. May, however, has brought myriad others in their place, some whose names I know: violet, white campion, dead nettle, periwinkle, bugle, foxglove ... and others whose blooms I recognise but cannot name. Perhaps you know them?

A collection of woodside wild flowers

Up above this hill the buzzards love to circle, sharp eyed in search of prey. One day up here we heard a persistent hammering and assume a woodpecker was making a nest. Below the canopy there are little pathways through the bracken and last year's wilted undergrowth leading to a slithery slide down to the road. What has made these? Though we have yet to hear them whinnying or see them from our terrace, the dung on the road and prints in the mud tell me there must recently have been wild horses passing this way.

Horse tracks in the woodland and hoof prints by the road

Now we too have reached the road. The sun is declining in the west and the warm evening light is falling between the leaves onto the verges and speckling the tarmac with gold, reminding me of Pied Beauty, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, that I read a life time ago in my poetry book at the end of primary school.

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow...

The evening sun falling through the trees lights up the verge and dapples the road.

There's one more boulder I want to show you before I stride out for home. This is one of my favourite rocks, one with the beginnings of the plant spires I told you about earlier. Isn't this a magnificent stone?

A mossy rock with flowering spikes

And now I should put a move on or I shall be obliged to make my way home in the dark. Luckily, though, as so often here, the hills have detained the clouds and the setting sun is firing them up in its last glory. As I get to my gate the first lights of Ponte de Lima are peeping out. You can just spot them in the darkness.

The sun setting at the end of the walk

Do you have any favourite walks in Portugal? If you do, please write in and tell us. (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)


jeremy pickard wrote:
Wednesday, May 20, 2020, 22:49
I have a favourite walk up the Giao mountain, but what really fascinates me are the various stone walls that appear at various places. When were these boundaries made? Why are they so varied in quality and the amount of labour involved? Why did anybody want to enclose that specific area rather than this one?
Margaret Bradley wrote:
Thursday, May 21, 2020, 14:12
Ah yes, stone walls! Some with regular even stones and the cracks filled in with chippings; others all higgledy piggledy and roughly laid. Some even look as if they've grown organically from the ground. All of them are beautiful in their own way, covered with moss and lichen or with wild daisies growing in the gaps and stonecrop clinging to surfaces which seem to hold no nutrients.

How has land ownership been decided and recorded? Well the former so far back in history that no one knows, though family lore may give indications, and the latter not at all, though things are changing now. When plots are bought and sold today, plans must must finally be drawn up and entered into the land registry. But I agree, the location of many walls seems arbitrarily chosen and in many cases a wall seems unnecessary. Who needs to fence in a grove of trees? After all, they aren't going to run away.

What is certain is that everyone in the area knows exactly, to the last centimetre, who owns what, even if ownership has never has been officially recorded. Yes, these stone wall are lovely but sadly so many are falling into disrepair. With their owners often working overseas, they will never be mended. Yet dissolution also creates attractive scenery. There's no need for rich landowners to build 'follies' here. They occur naturally. Let's hope in these days of enforced lockdown that people can exercise in the countryside and enjoy both walls and boulders along the way.
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