The bus from Avilés to Grado is thirty minutes of curves and rain-watching. The light drizzle and the winter cold are no impediment. It is a pleasure to get out of Avilés, trapped in an apartment with the sounds of traffic, schools and tight walls echoing those sounds back.
The best way to walk out of Grado is along the river. That way you avoid the traffic on the entry roads where the cars seem impatient to see a walker on the road. The river takes you to La Mata and on through a succession of small villages with crumbling old houses and ugly new chalets. The country lane merges with the road to Tameza that follows the river upstream past the historic villages of Villanueva and Agüera.
My photograph is not so good but you can see behind the tree the medieval tower of Villanueva here. There were many more of these towers in the past, to protect against robber knights who gathered around bully nobles to terrorize small-scale farmers. Grado was a walled town with walls built well after the times there was any realistic threat from invading armies. The people you had to protect yourself from were your neighbours! Now a castle or tower makes a village picturesque and gives a touch of history. There was one in Villandás but it was knocked down in the twentieth-century before sensitivity to the need to protect architectural heritage really took off.
In San Pedro de los Burros, St Peter of the Donkeys, I have to take the GR4 that heads uphill towards Restiello. I have walked 8 km and am nearly halfway there. it is timeto stop for a a small bottle of beer- a quinto or botellín– civilised little fifth of litre bottle of beer that costs the same as a coffee. Three or four cars have passed me so far and there are fewer still on this stretch of the road. It is the part of the walk that I have been anticipating, going steeply uphill through trees and cuttings with the stream gurgling away below either to right or left.
It gets colder. Clouds bunch up in grey masses over the hills to the south. It could rain, maybe snow when I get up to the village. There is no hurry. You walk with someone else and there is always some pressure to be walking faster or slower, but alone there is none of that. I go at my own pace and it surprises me how long it has taken to get this far, barely two thirds of the way there.
The silver birch is a winter tree. I think of it stretching across the Siberian wastes from Russia to Manchuria. Seeing the silver birch reminds me that I am going upwards, familiar friends from the mountainside, where it is colder. I am going home.
When I was a teenager I lived in my parents’ house in Taunton, a town on a river. Walking meant heading up out of town from the river towards the hills, north, south and west. If I went south to the Blackdown Hills there were woods of birch trees.
On those walks going home was going downhill. I would escape at the weekend to the woods walking in arcing circuits that would bring me back down to town at the end of the day. This is better. There is no return. I escape the town and keep heading upwards through air that is fresher, wood cover that gets denser, valley folds that get deeper. It is as though that figurative teenage escape had been made real now.
Who Are You?
This photograph could have been taken elsewhere. I could have been elsewhere too. It is a strange combination of chances that finds me in this place at this time walking up the hill in the north of Spain to a house in a village that is not my own. There are people here who define themselves, a little like some people back home, by the roots they have in the land: families that go back in time, stories they can tell about relatives in the villages. They feel the village and the land is their own, yes. They feel that there is something not just Spanish but Asturian about this area, specific to them, specific to their culture. And I look at the trees and think the photograph could have been taken somewhere else at a different time by a different person.
A stork flies up from the river. He has accompanied me up the hill in stages, hopping ahead of me upwards in stages and now he leaves, folding his long neck back into his body and stretching out his powerful wings to gain height then effortlessly gliding north back down the mountain.
There are catkins on the hazels. In the right light with the sun behind them the glow like golden capsules hanging from the grey winter branches of the leafless trees.
I keep walking and the kilometres click by. Soon I am less than five kilometres from the village. Then I go past the bar at Puente Seaza. There are cars parked outside and the top part of the door is open, but I don’t go in. It is an easy forty minute walk up the rest of the hill to the village and I am eager to get there.
The last stretch of the road curves around the side of the mountain. The chestnuts hang over and there is a carpet of husks along the sides of the road. I meet Aquilino from the village on the way down to the bar. He walks five miles every day and invites me to come down to the bar with him, but we stand chatting for ten minutes and then I set my head for the hill again.
When I arrive I go straight into the garden and look over the vegetable patch. The birds fly out of the bushes ahead of me- sparrows and a beautiful pair of warblers that always fly together. The robin does not fly away. He seems happy to see me and perches on a post eyeing me quizzically. He seems to know that I am not going to dig out worms for him because he gives me a quick series of calls and flutters off to the hedges.
I go inside and settle down with a coffee and a book. Later I’ll make something to eat.