I mentioned the change in light: from the flat lands of Cheshire to Wiltshire woods England seems shockingly dark after southern Spain. And, in spite of some wooded hillsides, flat. Wet? The start of the “rainy season” had been pretty heavy – the Axarquia gets good rainfall but it runs off or soaks in more: I returned to rediscover mud.
But flowers? In December? Not just winter-flowering cherry but periwinkle, primroses and … wild strawberries? That was really strange. Hello warming world. First EP then Wilshire’s beautiful woods …
Leaving the North West for the South West involved a train journey through Wales. I like train journeys: they can be a great way to enjoy a changing landscape. Since the embankment offers a strip of land hardly visited by people – and often backed by fields, farms or hedgerows – they can be a good opportunity to see wildlife.
Of course, taking photos through a dirty train window is pretty hopeless: you can capture landscape shots and even those are dodgy. Still, in the fields I saw corvidae – mainly rooks I think – and a red kite flying low above the embankment. The flooding of recent weeks has almost all been further north than I have this December – some field edges were flooded but nothing out of the ordinary for this time of year.
Then the train whipped past a large grey bird of prey sat like a statue on a post near the hedgerow – it turned it’s angled head as the train went by. Fleeting impression of dark grey back but mainly the white and grey front – and size – a big bird sat a few metres from my window. And my camera rendered useless by the speed of travel!
Not long afterwards I saw first one and then a second Red Kite – though having seen none of these birds in Spain over the last decade and more I was hesitant with the i.d. – and then, to my astonishment – a crowd of them – at least 7 raptors low over the field side. I registered white patches on the underwing before the black primaries but did not pay attention to the shape of the tail. Nevertheless, I am confident: I have been since been told that North Wales is a stronghold of the Red Kite. I was so impressed I got out my camera and sat with it ready at the window to catch some kind of impression of the next big raptor to appear. Needless to say, there were no more: nothing clears the landscape of wildlife so well as having your camera at the ready!
I know; some things cannot be sensibly compared. To try to compare and contrast walks in the Parque Natural de las Sierras Alhama, Tejada y Almijara with walks to the shops in Ellesmere Port seems a touch ridiculous. Still, having hopped back to suburban England doesn’t switch off the wilding. How much do the clichés match reality? Is every suburb a concrete, rainswept wasteland?
The first thing was the light. Maybe due to a gray first day with a damp thick hint of daylight – I want to find the switch. Malaga is often bright even when overcast: our cloud bursts are dramatic but briefer. And the trees were still in autumn leaf last week.
That is not to say there are no gleams of sunlight and very cheering too. But the general sensation is of winter using the dimmer switch.
Then there is how spread out the houses are: living in a higgledy piggledy “pueblo blanco” makes each house set in its own ground seem extraordinarily wasteful of space. But the gardens, naturally, are bursting with life. Even in December – there are flowers, berries, mosses, mushrooms! These may start out as artificial environments with plants selected, trained, controlled but before the drive cement has dried wildlife is breaking in – the bacteria, the rhizomes, the bugs and beasts have often never left.
Now, SHOCK NEWS!
In spite of having the Axarquia’s dry November fresh in mind, I haven’t found it terribly rainy. Wet, yes, but then the local park, has a drainage problem.
It is soggily obvious it is a wetter climate, but it hasn’t been unremitting – a shower here, puddles there. And, just as we had a dry, mild November back in Malaga, so December on the Wirral feels more like September. Is this global warming?
And there’s one other, really fundamental difference. Built on the Wirral beside the Mersey, not far from the Cheshire plain the town is so flat it makes a pancake look steep. I feel like Britain’s new astronaut, Tim Peake, who is losing muscle mass and bone mass minute by minute, hour by hour, his bodily systems giving up from lack of demand. When Malaga’s mountains call me back will the spring have left my legs? Maybe not. But I bet tuning up again will hurt!
Please feel free to comment on the contrast (below)! Any questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
First outing in December and I got out to the Fabrica de la Luz – Canillas de Albaida’s “light factory” – a lovely recreation zone by the river that once provided hydro-electric power to the village (hence the name). As always, at this time of year, the autumn colours are still refusing to believe winter is round the corner (officially arriving the 21st of this month) – the poplars that shift and sway in groves around the water have littered the ground yet are still almost fully clothed in lovely yellow. There are already lots of cars and a picnic already being set up by several families when I get here (in spite of a chill in the air), but I want some space so head up above the picnic tables. To the right of the camping sign a path heads right and up into the woods. I wander to the left first to see where the tents might go (there’s space for 2 or 3) and am rewarded by a flash of black and white – the flamenco-skirt wings of a hoopoe. Unmistakeable, lovely bird, but has disappeared into the trees before I have my camera up. I can’t leave you without a hoopoe though – a bird this beautiful with a latin name this ludicrous, deserves an image. I pinched this from copyright-free wikipedia (thanks, wiki).
Very pleased with myself, but shivering I head off uphill and, although it doesn’t rise especially steeply, I’m quickly warmed by the exercise. I was going up through Mediterranean pine woods but the birds around me reminded me of what I have seen in pine forest in the Lake District and Scotland – blue tits, great tits, finches, possibly a goldcrest. Most were heard rather than seen, in the persistent, annoying “tee-hee-hee” piping that is so frustratingly close but can’t be pinned down. I didn’t get too cross, though: plenty to look at on the ground.
The sense of life breaking out and celebrating in late autumn challenges the northern soul. It is so hard to remember, after seeing leaves falling from the poplar, that the key limit here isn’t warmth, light and day length, it’s water.
So we have flowers coming out. Thousands of dandelions going over is what has excited those finches – dozens of seed heads are ripe for the picking. The bulbs are up as well – there’s a lot of asphodel in the open spaces between the trees: I mainly saw leaves. The wild boar like these and you see marks of their rough ploughing for the bulbs. Close to the path I saw a smaller flower, the strange Friar’s cowl, it’s stippled stem turned away as if to hide its hooded face.
We’ve had a dry November, but enough water has found the woods to bring these bulbs out. It’s soaked its way between the trees to give glorious mosses a forest of verdant new growth.
Lower down the forest was quite dense with the pines growing closely together, with here and there where there’s a little more space thick spiky bushes of juniper covered in berries – one was weeping sticky sap – several showed new growth.
A little higher was a holm oak – common here, though there aren’t many on this hillside. I believe “holm” was an old form of “holly” because the leaves, especially the lowest, are serrated, but the acorns make the i.d. a bit easy!
Further on again and the “Forestal” has created clearings – I do not know the logic behind their work here, the trimmings with chainsaws are obvious enough – and in one of these is a dramatic stone block that appears to be a natural outcrop – it is marked on one side where someone’s drill hit it. It would make a perfect altar – I do believe there are photographs somewhere of walking guides on the point of being sacrificed (death by walking pole) on this stone…
Back to reality – a little further up there is a big man-made stone basin – municipal swimming pool at least, with a channel running beside it: this goes beyond the track to be hidden by juniper bushes – I believe it goes to a second ‘deposito’. These were the water storage tanks used to generate electricity in the days when the Fabrica de Luz was generating light. They would have been beautiful, but now, empty and decaying, seem a bit sad. A good place, though, to have a snack.
Getting higher the path is a little more rugged.
I am still looking at ground level, the extraordinary beauty of lichens having caught my eye: several of the rocks have particularly lovely growths, some quite leafy and 3d, at least one so flat it almost seems part of the stone.
Getting a little higher up I can see across the valley to the zigzag path (another one) that rises on the far side of the river – must tell you about that walk, my shepherd’s cortijo walk some time … and then I am above the forest, leaving it behind for shrubby, open land full of cistus, phlomis and dwarf palm and winter sunshine. Any minute the ugly Montossa quarry will be in sight … but not before a view to the coast and a horizon filled with light. God, it’s beautiful! Fabrica de la Luz, indeed.
A few hundred metres more and I reach the track above – left to Puerto Blanquillo, right to walk back to the quarry road that runs back to Canillas de Albaida. But nothing tops golden, shining sea. Only a small walk, squeezed into the afternoon of a busy week, but now I’m full of light and ready to spring off somewhere else!
Been to the Fabrica? Lichen expert? Any comments please feel free to add them (below). Any questions, email me at email@example.com and I’ll get back to you asap.
Walk: El Llano to Árchez and back – down to the mill, up to the finca, down past the turret, up to the road, down the road, down the yellow brick pavement – through the village, up to Canillas!
About 5.5Km, 2 hours, 250m ascent: almost all easy track or road walking with one rougher path.
End of November and a windy day. Get wild winds here – I believe the original name was “Costa del Viento” – the windy coast – and “Costa del Sol” was just the marketing name. Every plant bent with the blow, autumn rained down in a dance of leaves, the birds were all blown away in leaf-like, frightened, piping flocks, and the air smacked you in the face and roared in your ears. Life, rushing into your lungs!
By the afternoon I simply had to get out, even though stuck with juveniles, but that’s okay, they’ve got legs. We set out from Canillas de Albaida’s main carpark (El Llano) and walked down from the roundabout and along, past supermercado Rosario, to an left hand opening where you can nip between houses and right to reach the old, railed, mule path. It zigzags steeply down past Pepe’s pungent goatshed and as you go you glance at the path scored on the hill opposite and think how much fun it will be going up it. At the road I saw a yellow and grey bird fly away in long loops – there’s several pairs of yellow wagtails here. Crossed the “Puente Romano” then huff-puffed steadily up. That is the thing about hilly country. It is true that here, as elsewhere, what goes up must come down, but here what goes down usually has to go up again as well!
Top and left then I should keep going past Finca El Cerrillo, an superb little renovated hotel, full of character, turning left on the next track to pass a house with a round turret. But today, leaning on my friendship with the lovely El Cerrillo folk, I cheated: permission to cut through , via a beautiful olive grove, past the swing, the tree house, through a vicious olive-windfalls war, to emerge opposite the turret house. Ahem.
We carried on down and turned right past another house with a lovely terraced herb garden. The track winds on gently towards a water channel but no chance of seeing shy birds, with noisy sprogs running ahead and the wind roaring in the bushes. There are flocks of LBJs bowling overhead now and then but too fast to make out what. I content myself with a photo of a nice shield lichen and the gorgous golden light. I admire autumn colours – the grey-green of olive on the opposite hillside, the dark green of avocado groves, the bright splash of yellow from poplars and aspens clustered by watercourses.
At the lowest point there is a big stock of Giant Cane, Europe’s magnificent tallest grass. It’s beautiful and useful: gets used as free lightweight fencing and plant props. Never seen a panda though. I keep looking (you never know).
Now up again, towards the Archez-Salares road, and we saw wild flowers on the way: pretty Anthemis Chia, tooth-leaved lavendar, shepherd’s purse and ragwort in flower as we came to the road.
Great view back to Canillas with Las Dos Hermanas behind, looking magnificent in the sunshine. The hills over behind Cómpeta – Huerta Grande, Gaviarra and Calaminos – look shockingly bare. They were burnt off by fire last year and look sadly barren, but to cheer me up an Eagle (probably a Short-toed) comes sailing briefly overhead.
From a bench on the right of the road just before we go down we took a good look at Árchez: great little town in a loop of the river, surrounded by fertile land. The “hobbit houses” are visible from here – strange little oval dwellings, built in a Gaudi-esk style and mainly rented out I think; they are fun and quirky and a strange addition to a town with a 13th Century mudejar tower on a church that was once a mosque!
Just past the bench is a road down hill that was damaged by heavy rains in 2009/10. In rebuilding I think the townhall got a good price on some yellow paving and so built the yellow brick pavement. I hop along annoying the sprogs by singing my way past market garden terraces that are edged by prickly pairs and agave cacti (their 24 foot flower spikes have keeled over by now), and full of orange trees and pomegranette trees both hung with fruit that look like early Christmas baubles.
Coming down to the river I am always struck by how colourful the town is and how beautiful the little overgrown river valley, with banks feet deep in ivy and brambles and trees to make a glorious kingdom for birds that feel safe in the depth of that undergrowth. But this night I was struck mainly by how fast the light was going. Beautiful evening light all the way, glooming by the river, by the time we got out of the town it was suddenly dark.
The road up from the town twists and turns steadily to the town above – it is easy but there is no pavement, a drop on the left and a certain amount of traffic. This is rather less good with sprogs on the hop, making Bar Extremeña’s situation – just above Árchez – really handy.
Another cheat here then – we got a lift back. And a warning – it’s getting dark. Winter is coming?
Variable month November. There isn’t quite the sense of impending doom that UK winter brings, but still there’s a lot of busy beasts getting the most out of any good weather they get. In fact it feels a very rich time of year, well out from under the weighted cosh of summer’s heat, rained up enough to make things happen.
This year we enjoyed a good soaking in October, so life has rushed back to take advantage: a lot of flowers out making everything else very happy. We see Sweet Alison and Rape on the verges, as well as Oxalis leaves sprawling down the hillsides and their first yellow splashes emerging. Periwinkles is another that likes to carpet whole banks of ground, swaddling it up in growth before the pale blue flowers are put out. In the villages there are white jasmine and blue morning glory and the ever glorious bougainvillea to enjoy.
This November has been warm – mainly in the 20s – and feeling very friendly to all and sundry. That and the flowers keep the bees and many other things abuzzing: plenty of hoppers still out and about on the sandy paths in the natural park. The small birds are taking happy advantage – wagtails (pied, yellow), martins (we still have our crag martins, residents in contrast to the house martins who leave for Africa), blackbirds and thrushes. There are seed eaters, too: dozens of goldfinches (charms, they are supposedly called, not flocks: they are certainly charming), chiffchaffs, stonechats and black redstarts – I see a lot of these within the towns, ducking and bobbing their tails bravely from gateposts or treetops.
But autumn is in the air. We’ve seen misty, murky days where the cloud rolls up from the coast in the eeriest manner; or dry still days when half a dozen farmers burning off scrub manage to fill the valley with smoke plumes and the smell of olive wood. In the hills I miss the autumn colours familiar in England, but we see glimpses – many small stream corners host poplar trees,which provide a glorious splash of yellow.
Then there’s the farmlands: avocados hanging heavy on the trees blend in but the citrus fruit shows up nicely, as do pomegranates. There are mushrooms in the woods among the flowering rosemary bushes. And though the vines are long past fruiting their leaves colour up beautifully before they fall.
I notice the hunters at this time of year: it’s my best month for spying mantids of one kind or another and I have sometimes caught a glimpse of viperine snakes hunting in the water tanks I pass. I tend to see fewer raptors than in spring and summer but they don’t vanish all together: just last week there were two golden eagles (or possibly one passed me twice) cruising the hills above Salares.
Violent winds (and power outs) are not uncommon at this time of year and today was such a day: walking on tracks was difficult for the dust blown up into your eyes: fields and streets alike were wild with blown leaves and branches – and drivers had to beware loose rocks that had tumbled onto the road just past the bends. Almost all the sensible people I know dislike windy days and I know that, like any force of nature, it has it’s dangers and disadvantages – but God! it’s so invigorating! The breath of life rushes up the valley, gasps into your lungs, tells you to get out there and live!
Standing near the vineyards above Sayalonga, watching the wild valley, with the clouds bowling through the sky and a rainbow showing beyond Canillas, with vine leaves and olive leaves and pine bits scurrying through the air, I saw one still point hanging about 10 metres above the ground – a kestrel holding its own while facing into the wind and perfectly still, without barely a tremor of its wings, searching the chaotic ground below. Fantastic bird – always makes me think of GM Hopkins poem Windhover:
“riding the rolling level, underneath him steady air”.
At least, today the air was warm. Aemet are predicting a cold snap, with days that don’t get over 11 degrees and nights that drop to 1 degree before we reach December! Brrr…
What have you seen in November? Anything exciting? Bird of the month? Bug of the month? Or is it the autumn colours that floats your boat?
Yesterday was a glorious day for a walk! A hint of chill in the air, autumn colour on the trees, denied by the warm sun, the blue skies. We drove out from Cómpeta to the fantastic look-out at Puerto Collado and on and past Casa de la Mina, on and on jouncing and jolting and wondering where the track ends, passing a small spring on the left and coming to a(nother) hairpin just after which was a road sign. Thanking Niki (of Salamandra) we unpacked ourselves, stretched and looked around.
I was with 6 people I’ve walked with before and the redoubtable Sybil, (of whom more later) who is always up for a walk. This deep in the Almijara range looking south we saw the great bulk of El Fuerte and double of Cerro Panduro and Cerro Verde 2, looking hazed in the gentle sunlight. I’d love to be able to catch the subtle way the light and colour show distance and form so clearly – the camera seems to flatten and simplify a landscape which seems complex and rugged to the eye. To our east Cerro de las Tres Cruces loomed, with the unmistakable double bump of El Cisne peaking round its left side. And while, to the north east, we could see the Cerro de la Mota and the dramatic spike of Lucero, almost straight ahead rose the gentle ridge that is Loma del Daire. The signpost suggested it could be reached by continuing on the track but we scrambled up onto the bank to reach a clear footpath just ahead of the sign and followed that along the ridge’s flank.
It might be November but it is pretty warm in the sun – about 22 degrees and following the track up hill it certainly felt it. I walked this track a couple of years ago with Nic and it was so overgrown we both got torn to bits, but some clearing has been done and it was easy work. In fact the whole landscape and the panorama ahead seemed open and accessible – there were pines and the odd stunted cork oak- but mainly it was low sunny Mediterranean scrub – lovely wide-open sunny uplands, from one side to the other.
It’s very quiet – in contrast with the vineyards in the valley where I hear a lot of small birds at the moment – though we identified the persistent “Teacher! Teacher” call of a great tit and I saw a couple of goldfinches. Since my companions knew I saw Golden Eagles the other day – and they did not – there was just a hint of impatience at the lack of any very large fierce birds of prey landing on our heads. Really, it is unfair: a wild great tit is just as wild in its own way as a wild golden eagle. But apparently tits just don’t cut the mustard.
A lot of flowers are out. The air was full of herby smells – rosemary in flower, though not the thyme – gorse in flower – dianthus looking like a torn pink dress and resin smells from the pines of course, though this ridge is quite open with few trees. This meant that the background sound was bees, or at the least an warm insect hum. There are hives in the Casa de la Mina valley not far from the hotel, which we looked down on at some point and may have put me in mind of them. It may seem out of season to UK visitors to hear bees in November but even there a warm autumn will keep them flying: it was an English poet who wrote
“Late in the afternoon’s bright sun, the bees about the ivy come”.
Somehow the hum of bees seems to underscore the deep silence here in the hills.
Before we crested the ridge I started worrying about the sun. This is the time of year you get caught on an exposed ridge, on a sunny day that has started out cool. Happily two fellow walkers had cream to spare, so I didn’t singe the back of my neck. One of these ladies, Sue, is actually a Sandgrounder – she lives in Formby, on the coast north of Liverpool where I grew up: we compared notes and agreed the dunes and pinewoods, which are beautiful, are the best bit of this dormitory town.
Stopping briefly beside a clump of Dwarf Fan Palm (Chamaerops humilis) I found the star of the morning, in all her hunting glory: clambering about in the leaves a Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa). It is not exactly hard to i.d. an Mantid – the dramatic folded and spiked forelegs – the strange triangular head – the clambering that is both elegant and awkward – but getting the details of species right is surprisingly challenging. I say ‘her’ on the basis of six segments to her abdomen (the males have eight segments). Colour is not as significant as shape. I tried this time to pay attention to the shape of her eyes, the spikes on her forelegs and the colour of her armpit, which seemed to have a darker spot, but was restricted from seeing the wings by being unwilling to molest her overmuch – we all wanted a look at her but we didn’t see her fly.
I know Mantids are vicious hunters that hatch out ravenous and keep eating till they drop. I know they have a remarkable jump as well as being good climbers and able to fly, but I am often impressed by how elegant they are, as well as how strange and striking they look (once you have seen them). Recent research suggests they are not quite as inclined to eat their mates as once thought – it seems it may be encouraged by the stress of observation and therefore rather less common in nature than in glass frames under the lights. Not happy exhibitionists then! We left her in peace to keep hunting.
The path comes down into the dry river valley running south from Puerto Blanquillo: we crossed this then zigzagged up to join the “silk trail” and a sign giving us a dozen options and rather oddly pointing north east for Frigiliana, which lies well to the south.
Here we turned left left to pass the ruined walls of Venta Candido. The silk trail is said to have been the main trade route into Granada from the Axarquia – this would make sense since it’s a good trail to the Cómpeta pass and that is the lowest point between the two Sierras, which form the boundary between Malaga and Granada – so this was the trail along which muleteers brought Malaga’s silk cocoons down and brought back the woven cloth and everything else. This does cause some confusion though: every so often someone asks if there is a some long long trail ending in China.
Our silk trail is one of the most beautiful paths in the whole region; the track runs down to the threshing floor beside the ruin of Venta Pradillos, which sits beside tiny thread of a stream. That is what feeds the reeds and brambles, the poplars and oaks that give a rare and vividly beautiful splash of autumn colour to the scene. The threshing floor is high enough, at about 1050m, to feel cosily tucked into the hills but the valley running away south gives a channel for every sea breeze that fancies a hike in the hills. Venta Pradillos must once have been a thriving business, with the traders bringing everything you can think of past and stopping to water their mules and feed themselves. Further sign of industry is the remains of old lime kilns – an important trade in a land where the law said you must whitewash your house yearly. Alas, the trade to Granada has long since taken other routes and suspicions that the ventas were surviving by supporting smugglers, bandits and guerrillas, led to their being abruptly shut down – the roofs taken off to be quite sure – in the early ‘50s. A shame really. I could have enjoyed a cuppa tea while I enjoyed the view.
On we went through a small but deep pine wood and then following the trail gradually up towards the rocky summit of Atalaya. We ate our sandwiches in the shade looking down towards the coast and I saw a few martins flying in the valley below, but most entertainment came from watching Sybil’s boundless, bounding enthusiasm in the chasing of pinecones. Sybil, I should add, is a dog; a lovely bright young dog who is always eager for adventure and usually willing to return when called. She had rapidly discovered that Richard was willing to throw pine cones steadily down the track, up the track, over the track and was wildly trying to anticipate his next throw to catch the missile before it hit the dirt. This was a game that could never spoil: who knew where the next cone would bounce off to? She would run after faked throws, run after half throws, run after imaginary throws and run back eager for more. She enjoyed herself so much she got too hot – I am indebted to the two Sues for calling my attention to her thirst and letting me pool their water in my hands for her. But my goodness, that dog is fit!
We headed past pine trees showing the decades old scars of resin collection and on to the last ruin, Venta María, in sight of Cerro Gávilan where the fire watch station is housed. Gávilan is Spanish for Sparrowhawk but I’ve never seen one just here although I have seen Bonelli’s Eagles and Peregrine falcons.
Now from the junction with the road – this is the “Cruz de Canillas” marked on some maps – we headed down the forestry track (rather than left towards Gávilan). Work has recently been done here with some of the most rutted eroded sections of ground now sitting under a jacket of cement.
The day was cooling at last, though not quickly enough for Sybil who worried us a little by wriggling in the sandy soil to help herself cool down! The track winds down and down and down: after a long series of big zigzags it meets the Puerto Blanquillo road. We turned left and kept going, deep into the valley system where the Montosa quarry is; we could hear a digger doing more work on the track and past it in the end.
Having come from the very light, bright, high silk road we felt the track was deep in the dark woods; the sparkling white rocks disappeared and we were walking on soft soil with banks of ground damp enough to host mosses. No escaping the herbs though – there was still masses of flowering rosemary down here between the trees as much as on the upper slopes. I am struck by the variation in colour – I think of rosemary as flowering blue, but there were white flowers, lilac flowers, flowers with delicate stipples of purple and blue tints. There were also a couple of plants I can’t name: a low growing rosette of cactus leaves and a loose woody bush with a yellow flower on it. Let me know if you know what they are!
And then we were out of the woods at the tarmac road. The “Curva Grande” is what we call a loop in the road where the lorries turn – a handy reference point for this junction, which you should reach with aching feet and shining soul, ready to collapse into a vehicle for a lift back home. And here was Mari with her taxi waiting to take us back to showers and tea, from this bright and brilliant walk.