Hidden Gems of Los Vélez

One of the delights of living in Spain is found in exploring its hidden valleys, its mountains and fertile plains untouched by tourism or the blight of building that is effecting parts of the coast. Having been working hard on my latest book, I thought we deserved a day out and decided to explore the Los Vélez region which stretches from the northern tip of Almeria into the province of Murcia and Granada.

We began our tour in Chirivel, a delightful white-walled village just north of Albox.
The Roman road Via Augusta passes by Chirivel on its route from Cartagena to Cadiz, and I must say, the Romans knew how to choose a good spot. It’s charms are still evident to this day.

Valuable Roman remains were apparently found here, including the figure of Dionisos, which has become the symbol of the town, although the original has been moved to the Archaeological Museum of Almería.

The town is also famous for its pastry making, handed down from the time of the Moors, and for its honey. A small market was flourishing on the morning of our visit but I resisted buying one of the pretty song birds, hoping they would all find good homes.

The poet Julio Alfredo Egea describes Chirivel as “with margins populated by elder trees and poplars, inhabited by goldfinches and nightingales.”

From here we moved on to the two brightest jewels of the Los Vélez region: Vélez Rubio and Vélez Blanco. Situated between the two can be found Los Letreros cave where you can see many prehistoric cave paintings, including the famous Indalo man. This has been adopted as a symbol for the entire area. “Indal eccius” means messenger of the gods. Collect the key from the tourist office and prepare to walk up many steps to satisfy your curiosity.

Lunch can be enjoyed at Meson el Molino (The Windmill), in Vélez Blanco, which has a high reputation locally, serving salmon, prawns, trout, veal, partridge and wonderful grilled meats. Not forgetting a mousse chocolat to die for.

Not to be missed is the splendid Los Fajardo Castillo, the crown of Vélez Blanco, with the stunning vista of the sierra as back-drop. This was once the palace of the Marquis of Los Vélez, constructed at the beginning of the 16th century. Most of its contents have been sold to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but it is still worth a visit for its architecture alone.

We have explored the castillo many times as Vélez Blanco is a favourite of ours, and today, after a pleasant walk around the town’s quiet streets with its water fountains and Moorish quarter, it is a good place to finish our tour for today.


Lancashire Markets

Lancashire to me means the warmth and good humour of the people, their laughter and song, and how they always bounce back with a joke when times are hard. It’s the blast of the mill hooter, my Gran singing Thou Shalt Not Want in chapel three times of a Sunday, then wondering what she could find for tea. It’s the smell of hot pie and peas, leather in my father’s shoe shop, soot and smoke from the old mill chimneys. It’s the crumbly delight of Lancashire cheese, the banter on Accrington market. It’s the wild beauty of open, wind-swept moorland where I could play all day damming brooks and climbing trees, picnicking on a jam butty and a bottle of pop and nobody worried. It’s skipping games and scraped knees, ice lollies, cobbled streets and chip butties. It’s my childhood. It’s what made me who I am.

And so I was inspired to write my Manchester sagas, this wonderful city representing the capital of the world to me when I was small. And Champion Street Market, a series of six books set in the 1950s around a market in Castlefield, Manchester. The fourth in the series, CANDY KISSES, is out now, although they can be read as stand-alone stories.

‘Romance doesn’t come sweeter than this tale of love and chocolate set in the grimy streets of 1950s Manchester.’ Lancashire Evening Post

‘The new series will be greeted with joy by the thousands of women who enjoy her books.’ Evening Mail, Barrow-in-Furness

‘You can’t put a price on Freda Lightfoot's stories from Manchester's 1950s Champion Street Market. They bubble with enough life and colour to brighten up the dreariest day and they have characters you can easily take to your heart.’ The Northern Echo.

In 1950s Manchester, folk are just emerging from the shadow of the war. Money is still tight, and the bustling market is a source of tempting bargains – as well as the local gossip.

Everyone loves Aunty Dot’s homemade sweets and chocolates. And everyone loves Aunty Dot: the plump, smiling woman has provided a loving home for many a troubled child. Lizzie Pringle would do anything for her foster mother – even taking on local sweet manufacturer and bully, Cedric Finch. Until she falls for his son, Barney… 

Dena can’t believe that Barry Holmes would hurt her beloved daughter: he’s been like a favourite uncle to the little girl. But there’s no smoke without fire. And chocolate can be bitter, as well as sweet … Manchester’s Champion Street market is the hub of the lively ‘fifties community. Find out more about the stall-holders and their customers in Putting on the Style and Fools Fall in Love.

I based my fictional market on Campfield Market, situated between Tonman Street and Dumville Street, a large market hall which also had an outside market all around it. There were food shops, pork butchers with red polonies hanging up, biscuit stalls where you could buy a bag of broken biscuits for sixpence; a milliner who sold bits and pieces with which to trim your hat. On the outside market there would be stalls selling rolls of lino which the man would slap to make a noise and attract people. One auctioned pots and would juggle and drop one if no one was paying attention.

Once he had a crowd around him he’d say: ‘Look at this beautiful plate. It’s exquisite. Just like the pattern on our Lizzie’s garters.’ He was a showman, keen to make his audience laugh. He’d offer his pots at a ridiculous price, then beat down the price to sell.

And then there were the sweet stalls, the ice cream parlour where you could choose to have raspberry syrup or chocolate sauce and other delights on your ice cream. Originally these were sold in a licking glass before the advent of wafers and cornets. 

One man sold old uniforms and badges. He was a bit deaf and didn’t like kids hanging around his stall, suspecting they were after nicking some of his treasures. Another old soldier would sell matches and boot laces from a tray. Kids used to help the stall holders pack away and stack up their stalls, hoping to earn a penny which would buy them a piping hot cup of Vimto. The Maypole Dairy sold marg, butter, bacon and milk etc. The Flat Iron market sold second-hand clothes. And there was a little fairground as well. Lascars, or Indian seamen, sometimes called ‘coolie johnnies’ worked there.
 And there was a wonderful cheese stall which would give you a taster before you decided which to buy. Markets have remained a strong tradition in Lancashire, and I still love browsing on them.

Using these memories I devised a cast of characters from Belle Garside, a fancy piece who runs the market café, to Aunty Dot who took in foster children, Winnie Watkins who pokes her nose into everybody’s business, and Barry Holmes who gets more than he bargains for when he starts a boys’ boxing club. The series begins with Putting On The Style
Then we have:
Fools Fall in Love
That'll Be The Day
and now: Candy Kisses


Celebrating with trees

I was delighted to read that there is to be a mammoth planting of trees to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee. It will be called the Jubilee Wood Project and new areas of woodland are to be planted across Britain, one for each year of the Queen’s reign. The Queen planted the first on her Norfolk estate, but local children also joined in. It reminded me of the many times in the past when I have been involved in a similar project, because you don’t have to be the Queen in order to plant a few trees. Here I am with my Guide company planting a row of trees beside the River Kent in Kendal.

They are still alive, I’m pleased to say, and all those young girls involved are now young mums and can savour the pleasure of having added to the town’s charms.

Trees are also wonderful memorials to departed loved ones, so much better than a few flowers on a grave that will wither and die.

They that say planting trees is an unselfish act because you may not live to see them mature. That depends, of course, what you plant. We once planted a wood of a thousand trees, on the two and a half acres (one hectare) when we lived in the Lake District.

We sought advice from the Forestry Commission on what to plant and on the day the advisor came, it was one of those typical Lakeland days, the rain sheeting down and blowing a gale. Undaunted, he and I put on our waterproofs and walked the land, not large, but high up on Shap fell, and talked, or rather shouted above the wind about what to plant where. He suggested oak and ash on the lower field, protected by the faster growing soft woods such as pine above, interspersed with hazel, rowan and silver birch, all indigenous species. He was totally against sycamore as he called these weeds. And we opted for a copse of Scots Pine on the bluff.

We bought the whips, as young trees are called, from a specialised nursery in the borders of Scotland, on the basis that if they could withstand Scottish weather, they could cope with the Lakes. We heeled them in first of all, to keep them alive, and then began the task of digging. It was great fun, not at a chore at all, and some of the pines we planted did go in lines so that we could easily locate them, but the hard woods were more decoratively spaced within their shelter. The entire family took part, including our two daughters, with the dogs doing their best to hinder us. We took some stick from local farmers who accused us of planting fox cover, but we felt it was a celebration of our love for the house and the area.

Today, 30 years on, we no longer live in that house. But we can still go back and visit the wood to view it from afar. Somewhat overgrown now, in parts, but from it a tree is given every year to the local church at Christmas time, and it still thrives. To me it is a memorial to the happy family life we enjoyed in that house.

Have I ever written about my love of trees? Of course, writers always use their personal memories and anecdotes whenever they can. Trees feature strongly in GRACIE’S SIN, a story of the timber Jills in World War Two. And THE BOBBIN GIRLS, set in Grizedale Forest. Interestingly, these are two of my most popular books, so maybe lots of other people love trees too. If so, then go out there and plant some, if it’s only one in your garden. So go on, be like the Queen and celebrate with trees.


Our Caribbean Cruise

We treated ourselves to a fabulous Caribbean cruise this Christmas on the Emerald Princess, which I must say was wonderful. Here she is, looking very grand.

We sailed from Fort Lauderdale on a lovely sunny day in mid December and our first stop off was at Princess Cays where we relaxed on the beach and enjoyed a barbecue.

The iguana is enjoying the sun as much as us.

Our next island was St. Thomas. Here we visited St. Peter Great House and gardens where there are 150 species of Caribbean plants. The island was named by Christopher Columbus in 1493, and later Sir Francis Drake used to lie in wait for Spanish treasure ships in the quiet waters of Magens Bay. Blackbeard and Captain Kidd also used this as a safe harbour.

Dominica was lovely, very natural, where we enjoyed a visit to a waterfall, saw a huge banyan tree in the botanical gardens, and a bus that had been flattened in a typhoon. Glad it wasn’t ours.

One of our favourite islands was Grenada where we visited a spice estate. The guy in the picture is moving the cocoa beans in order to help them dry out. We were shown how nutmeg and mace were produced, and later visited the distribution centre.

Did you know that loofahs grow on trees? No, neither did I, but apparently they do.

On Bonaire, part of the Dutch Antilles, we went out on a glass bottomed boat to look at the fishes and coral. We even saw a great big sting ray. Amazing! And this Pirates of the Caribbean type ship.

Our last excursion was Christmas Day where we visited a butterfly farm on Aruba. I loved the butterflies, which were huge and brightly coloured. The pair the woman is holding were mating. Well, it has to be done somehow.

And this is an owl butterfly, named for its markings.

And another pretty one.

I bought some face cream at an aloe vera factory, of course, and learned something about the medicinal properties of this plant, which I do grow in my Spanish garden. Very interesting, and useful for sting relief. Just slice the spikes off the leaf first, then peel back the green part to reach the sappy bit. Rub that on the sting and you’ll feel much better. There’s also a lovely shopping centre on Aruba, but as it was Christmas Day, it was closed.

There was plenty of entertainment on board, including a brilliant tribute band, the Beatle Maniacs, who were superb. Lots of excellent dining, dancing, music and shows, and plenty of excuses to dress up. Great fun!  And you can watch the movie while you swim.

We shall certainly be cruising again.