6 Aug 2017


It looks like something solid emerging but really it is
lumps of floating Restingolitos and bubbling water.
Photo de C. Axelsson.
It seems the Canary Islands are a sort of trail of breadcrumbs left by a rogue tongue of weakness in the Earth’s crust. Over millions of years the weakness has been advancing from east to west leaving, first and nearest Africa, the island of Lanzarote, then Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and finally El Hierro, the westernmost and youngest of the archipelago. Logically, then, if an addition to the family is going to emerge from the bed of the Atlantic, the best place to look for it is near us. And that is exactly what appeared to be about to happen between October 2011 and March 2012.

Cockerels in the Canaries crow at any time during the day or night, supposedly because they are very sensitive to seismic tremors. Just before October that year they began to have nightly concerts and even we insensitive human beings began to feel the movements (of the earth not the concerts) some of which were quite strong. Then the sea to the south of La Restinga began to look dirtier. Next, it seemed to boil and to spew up precooked fish and a sort of black and white pumice that floated to the coast and was eagerly collected by the population until the activity was finally forbidden. These floating rocks were dubbed 'Restingolitos', a pun on the name of the village and the suffix meaning 'stone' or the diminutive. Eventually La Restinga was temporarily evacuated because of the danger of poisonous gasses. And that was it. We didn’t get a new island. 

Whenever something out of the ordinary happens it is normal to get a succession of politicians jousting for a photo in the press. Of course, they are all experts in the field in question. In November 2011 there was a General Election, a coincidence which greatly exacerbated the phenomenon. So, every day from different institutions and national candidates, as well as regional and local 'authorities', we had contradictory analyses, propositions and forecasts. Ill-prepared meetings were held, the army was called in, ferries to evacuate the whole island were to be requisitioned ... At best all this helped put El Hierro on the map even if the reports in the international tabloids were inclined to catastrophic sensationalism. Of course, there was a funny side. It was said that one enterprising fellow had registered in his name the new island, if ever it should emerge, and that the oceanographic research vessel had recovered a German beach towel and parasol pegged to its surface 100 metres below the waves.

El Hierro has long been known as the 'island of five hundred volcanoes' – all dead, of course – so now it is the 'island of 501 volcanoes', this last one still huffing but invisible to all except the divers at La Restinga.

7 Jul 2017

Photos in El Mentidero

A few weeks ago I was surprised to see an exhibition of photographs in the square (El Mentidero) of El Pinar. Surprised because it was the last place I would expect to find an exhibition. More surprised by the superb quality of the photos. And even more surprised than that by the subject matter. Portraits of the villagers.

These were not pictures of quaint old ladies in weeds, nor of ephemeral beauties in clouds of gossamer before a spectacular sunset, or mustachioed dancers in funny hats. No, these were not the official inhabitants of the virtual Hierro promoted by the authorities. These were real people. People I know. Just their portraits against a black background. No trappings. Their personalities laid bare in the best tradition of western portraiture:  resignation and sadness in the eyes of a Renaissance figure; the disbelieving anger of Huxley’s redskin in Brave New World; the tenderness and uncertainty of a woman who has seen it all; the acceptance of injustice; a young boy’s defiance … It’s all there, the hardship and misery, but, above all, the dignity of the individuals.
The photgraphs shown here are snaps
of the originals taken in the square by
a visitor.

Perhaps I read too much into what I see but I hope that soon the photographer, Alexis W., shows us another, complementary vision of his villagers: their generosity, humour, sense of family, hope, tolerance …

His second collection of photographs exhibited in El Mentidero, also entitled NOSOTROS (“we” or, if we divide the word, “us and the others”), is superficially similar but fundamentally different in my opinion. These, too, are delicate psychological portraits, this time of ‘alternative’ couples, but they imply the complicity of the photographer while in the earlier exhibition he was apparently only the vehicle between his subjects and us, and also, especially given the timing of the show, they suggest vindication.

The photographer has an internet site well worth visiting:

8 Jun 2017

Popular domestic architecture 1

What follows is the fruit of my personal observation. I am not an architect and so it may be far off the mark. But somehow I don’t think so.

The traditional popular domestic architecture of El Hierro is a rural architecture. The island's urban architecture is no different from that of the other islands.What distinguishes it is a number of ingenious responses to the islanders’ physical, economic and social world, each of which responses by itself may not mean much but together they make up a characterization which is rapidly being lost.

You will nowhere find a farmhouse on El Hierro for the simple reason that a farmhouse requires a farmer, not an absentee landlord. Until well into the twentieth century the traditional dwelling was a simple stone-walled one-room cottage measuring roughly 5-7 by 3-4 metres inside. I have heard that the dimensions depended on the length of the central ridge-beam of pitch-pine heartwood the family could afford, that is if the family actually owned the house.

Dry stone walling using basalt. Note
the flakes used as fillers between
larger stones and the heavy
cornerstones on the left. The one in
the middle may weigh 200 kg.
The walls were massive, up to around 80cm thick, built by keying in dry stone, mostly basalt, with the minimum of squaring. The spaces between the larger stones on the face of the wall were filled with the flakes knapped off when preparing the building stone. The corner stones were always especially big and heavy and in more prosperous houses were often large faced blocks of red, brown or black volcanic conglomerate. On the way up from the port of La Estaca you can see where some of these corner-stones were quarried.

An alternative method of construction, presumably used when the supply of large basalt stones was limited, was to use smaller material packed together with earth in a frame, a variant of the rammed earth technique. I have not met anyone who has actually
A wall using smaller material set in
puddled earth. The cornerstones on
the right are volcanic conglomerate.

witnessed construction using this method but some of the walls of my own house can only be explained in this way.

The walls were grouted outside and rendered inside with a paste of plaster or dung mixed with goat hair, or simply earth, and pushed into the spaces between large stones and fillers. The plum-pie effect you often see today on restored houses – large stones exposed between areas of thick cement – is a more recently invented ‘tradition’.
Remains of dung and plaster grouting. The resistance of this
material is surprising: this example has,to my knowledge,
been exposed at least for forty years , perhaps 60 or 70!

Roofs were traditionally gable-pitched and thatched with rye straw, hence the popular term ‘pajero’, from ‘paja’ (=straw) although thatch is called ‘colmo’ on the island, with one end of the rafters simply resting on the heavy ridge-beam and the other on the walls. As there is very little clay on the island, roofing tiles, even of the Roman type, were normally out of the question but in the early 20th century flat French ‘Marseille’ tiles became available. At the same time, lime was imported to La Restinga where there still exist the furnaces that were used to convert it into quick lime.

This enabled the very curious construction of impermeable, and much less combustible, flat roofs. Beams stretching from one side of the room to the other were laid at fairly close intervals along the walls and on top of these a dense packing of large splinters (astillas) of pitch-pine. On top of the splinters, a layer of gravel and then another thick layer of sand and lime laboriously compacted by hand with large pebbles. Practically eternal!

Presumably with the popularization of tiles, low parapets began to be used at the gable end to hold the tiles down in strong winds and compensate for the lack of squared corners – evidently no-one knew of the 3-4-5 formula for there is not a 90º corner anywhere on the island! In the case of flat roofs the parapet ensured rainwater was not lost. In the north of the island there are quite a few, I think beautifully proportioned, houses with a very elegantly angled gable-end that use the same conglomerate rock as the cornerstones to make the parapet.

Finally, there is nothing curious about the fact that such cottages never had a bathroom nor toilet – why should they? Water was very precious and the dwellers were out all day herding or working the unforgiving land. Besides, most of London was built without such amenities! And windows? The humbler dwellings had none. They did not need them, even if they could have afforded the glass: they only went home to sleep!

7 Jun 2017

Popular domestic architecture 2

At right angles forming an ‘L’ with this simple cottage, there is usually a small kitchen attached, often with a flat roof and ceiling of splinters blackened by the smoke of a thousand meals cooked over an open fire. This disposition was no accident. El Hierro has, together with La Palma, the most Atlantic climate of all the Canaries. The cool, humid Trade Winds from the north and northeast are constant and quite often much more than a pleasant breeze. The ‘L-shape' provides the islanders with a sunny patio, facing preferably south but in practice anywhere between southeast and west, that protects them from the wind. The door of the dwelling most often gives on to this patio and there is invariably a masonry bench beside it for grandma to sit on. This orientation of dwelling and patio is the same whether on the northern or southern slopes of the island and is often maintained even when dwellings are clustered together.

A two storey house in the north of the island. Note the gable end and the traditional rendering of the walls. In this example, the 'L-shape' has been obscured by partial roofing at a later date and another construction in front.
Wherever possible, the islander built not on valuable flat arable land but on a slope, often taking advantage of a break or natural step in the slope. Again a slope facing roughly south was preferred and goes some way to explaining the somewhat curious way hamlets seem to have grown on only one side of the ridges. There were also practical constructional advantages: rainwater collected from the roof could be channelled round the ends of the cottage down to the water cistern which every dwelling had and was often near or under the patio. More importantly, however, a slope or naturally terraced piece of land facilitated construction and, of course, two-storeyed buildings: half the uphill wall was already there. In villages, especially on the more fertile northern slopes, where the two storey construction was formalized, windows were set in the upper storey walls and small barred ventilation openings are commonly found downstairs.

The humble building on the left, roughly contemporary with the one in the photo above, is a good example of the transition from rural tradition to urban. The patio has in some way been replaced by the alley in front and by a walled garden. There are no parapets and the tiles are weighed down with large stones. Otherwise the proportions are similar and the method of construction is the same. The addition with the stairs at the far end is much later. This house, in Valverde, could be anywhere in the islands, even in the Azores.

Quite often the patio itself was sunken, surrounded by walls retaining small fields or gardens. Although today it is often hard to discern because of the large number of recent structures, the use of sun-orientated natural slopes and sunken patios gave a pleasant and varied pattern to traditional groupings of dwellings following the contours of the land.

All that is left of a humble dwelling
in El Pinar, the door jamb and lintel,
so solid that over a very long time
even the stone walls have fallen away.

Inside there were two methods of flooring the dwelling. Fairly large stones may have been packed into place to make a rough cobbling. Alternatively, a mixture of earth and cow-dung may have been laid down and smoothed over. In the single storey dwellings, more comon in the poorer south, at about two metres above the floor a platform of pine trunks and planks formed a sort of loft where the people slept under the roof. The lower part, then, was used for everything else: storage, workshop, eating etc. Doors were invariably haar-hung, that is to say there were no hinges but the door pivoted in holes at the bottom and in the lintel at the top. The door jambs and lintel consisted of a frame of sturdy pieces of hardwood, usually Juniper, or pitch-pine, and were more important structurally than just doorframes. Internal dividing walls, if any, were flimsy partitions of split bamboo wattle or sacking. Stone dividing walls would have taken up too much space. On occasions a second cottage was added end to end giving the impression of a long construction of two rooms.

Every house had a rainwater cistern, in fact the family’s main supply of fresh water. The cistern usually had a diameter of 3.5 to 4 metres and a capacity of about 30 cubic metres, although we have a very much smaller one. It was dug straight down often through a stratum of hard basalt. The walls were made impermeable with lime and the roof crudely corbelled with large rocks. The surface of the cistern roof was finished with lime in the same way as the flat roofs and an opening was left to pull water with a bucket. Many traditional houses had in a wall facing the access to the dwelling a small niche containing wooden crosses in memory of departed kinsfolk.

Not exactly ancestor worship, but you may be forgiven
for thinking so.
Another very common feature is the bread oven, usually built quite separate from the dwelling – in any case I have never seen one with access from within the cottage as in other parts of Spain. The oven is usually a cube about 2 metres square, apparently built in exactly the same way as the cottage walls, with a flat roof and a small opening half way up and in the middle of one wall. The chamber is a perfect hemispherical void about 125cm in diameter in the centre of the construction and built with shaped blocks of conglomerate. The floor is of flat basalt flags. The fire was set in the chamber to one side and the fumes came out through a horizontal flue near the door.

6 Jun 2017

Popular domestic architecture 3: the 'sitio'

In modern Spanish the word ‘sitio’ means ‘place’, but traditionally in El Hierro the term was used in the Cuban meaning of ‘place where someone lives’, rather like ‘homestead’ in English. Unlike homestead, however, sitio had nothing to do with political organization or defence. And like traditional architecture, of which it forms part, it responded to the needs of the family unit.

The drawing represents quite faithfully a sitio sometime in the early twentieth century. We are looking at it from a height, roughly from the south, so that the two main gabled buildings have their long side facing southeast. It had probably begun as a single dwelling a long time before, the cottage with an open door and a figure sitting on the patio bench being the first. At that time it would have been thatched. It was customary for a daughter to remain at home to care for her parents when they got too old to fend for themselves. When she married, she and her husband would have built at a right angle to her parents’ home the single-pitched thatched construction and the small lean-to kitchen in front of the door of the earlier building. One of her siblings may then have built the rather more ambitious gable-ended cottage in the foreground on a lower level and with a sunken patio. The main house and the two new cottages shared two water cisterns, one under the central patio and the other at the far end of the sunken patio. Access to the cluster was from a path on the far side, around the back of the earliest building and, to the newest, through the sunken patio.

By this time there were probably three generations of the same family living in this sitio. Next another young woman got married and brought her groom to join the fold. Up until now the founding cottage had remained a small gable-pitched thatched affair occupying only half the ground space the drawing illustrates. The new-comers built their room alongside the founding cottage, raised the height of the gables to give greater head room since the floor of the new room was a metre and a half above that of the founding cottage and gave both structures a single, possibly tiled, roof. The previous buildings used dry-stone walling but in this case the three new walls were built of smaller stone compacted with earth. Access was through a door in the gable end facing southwest, i.e. towards us.

We are now in the twentieth century with an extended family embracing four generations and there is yet another addition to make to the cluster. This time three walls, using the same technique as the most recent addition, formed a new room along the width of the gable end of the other two. The entrance was again set facing southwest and the room was given a flat roof. The occupants of the previous room on the same level now opened a door facing northeast directly onto the footpath down past the sitio. This went against traditional usage but it avoided having to pass through the new room. At the same time, a small kitchen was built beside the door, again creating the typical ‘L’ shape with a small patio on the southwest side. A new water cistern was dug in front of the door and kitchen and all the rubble was stacked up on the other side of the entrance path which now skirted the new additions. The drawing shows a shed for animals at the top of the sitio.

In what was at that time a very difficult environment – a subsistence economy with no surplus with which to buy goods – the sitio provided a physical expression of the concept of ‘family’ and provided cooperation, not only in the production of food - herding, cultivation, gathering wild plants fishing, etc. ... -, bartering, and care - of the elderly and children, of the infirm and ill - but also in the production of tools and clothing etc. In a community of perhaps a dozen adults and a horde of youngsters and children, there were weavers and shoemakers, seamstresses and tinkers, blacksmiths and carpenters, knappers and bakers ..., not professional craftsmen but people capable of providing the basics for their extended family. In addition to the basic physical sitio, its members might also own pieces of land, often at some distance away, each suitable for the cultivation of a specific crop - cereals, pulses, figs, vines etc. - or forage and pasture thus ensuring a variety of resources throughout the year. So, the sitio was an economic unit based on strong family ties and collaboration capable of providing for a considerable number of people.

10 May 2017


Tanajara, the vantage point above El Pinar from which the young men called out the misdeeds of the villagers.
You’ll be told that you can leave your front door or your car unlocked. Perhaps that’s truer here than in central London, but don’t. It is true that in the past, delinquency in El Hierro was mostly a question of ‘misery delinquency’ – petty theft of food and so on. But, even so, there must have been mechanisms that ensured most people followed the accepted the standards of conduct the community expected of them.

One such mechanism was the ‘malgareo’ – the local equivalent of the English ‘skimmington’ or European ‘charivari’. Whereas in other parts of Europe the tradition was abandoned long ago, in El Pinar it is part of living memory. I don’t know if it was practiced in other parts of El Hierro or even on the other islands. A group of young men – some say chosen, others say friends – would, on a still and dark night, go up to the top of a hill overlooking the village from where, disguising their identity with falsetto voices, their cries could be heard in every house. Amid laughter and laments, they would butcher an imaginary goat or ass and offer appropriately chosen cuts to different villagers: I shall leave it to you to imagine what cut went to the adulterous wife, to the cheating shopkeeper, to the husband beater and nagging wife, to the cuckold, the drunkard, the village trollop, the lecher, the trespassing goatherd, the gossip, the pilferer, … Unlike elsewhere, this was not accompanied by rough music – the banging of pots and pans and bawdy songs – and the victims were not paraded around the village, but, even so, it must have been a very effective deterrent to misbehavior. How would you like all your neighbours to know you had been awarded the donkey’s tail?

There were other benefits. Most importantly the responsibility for upholding and transmitting the standards of behavior expected in their rural society was bestowed on the young people, especially the young men. Pretty good schooling, I would think. Perhaps we ought to reinstate the tradition!

12 Mar 2017

The Village

The writer warned:
Anything you say or do may be
recorded and used in a story.

There is on the Island a village – it shall be unnamed but herein known as the Village – the inhabitants of which have the ugliest of reputations. Such notoriety is always doubly unjust for it invariably hides uncomfortable truths about ourselves. No, the Villagers are not irresponsible, ungovernable and irreverent, they just disdain any authority imposed on them from without; they are not untruthful and undependable but creative and independent; and they are not lazy, they simply place work on the scale of everyday priorities in the place it deserves: right at the bottom. They may be envious, that most essentially human of all feelings and arguably the one that has most contributed to our species’ evolution, but so are you and I.  And so on.

Now it so happens that the Lord, as busy as usual at being ubiquitous, got late word of the Villagers and their unfortunate reputation and decided He would have to get rid of them. This was rather tricky in an age of transparency and accountability such as ours, so He called in the Devil for help. The first scourge to hit the Villagers came from the Devil: a forest fire of huge dimensions that threatened to consume the whole Village but eventually only had the inhabitants coughing and sneezing. It was now the turn of the Lord. He had heard they were always complaining about the scarcity of rain the Village received so He sent a deluge. The gullies burst with muddy water that swept away cars and buildings but miraculously spared the Village church. But the Villagers took even that in their stride. Meanwhile the Devil had heard that they had long demanded a town council for themselves and he and the Lord decided that if the Villagers had one, their competitive spirit would be their downfall. It took the Devil quite some time to negotiate this with the politicians and administrators of the realm but he was the more suited of the two to do so and eventually a deal was reached and the Villagers got their municipality

At first it looked as if the Lord and the Devil had been right but the villagers, far from coming to blows, finally came to their senses and did the right thing. They called in a team of civil servants – one for every 100 Villagers on the greatly inflated roll – and from then on ignored the pen-pushers and the institution they had so much wanted. The civil servants still try to establish their importance by nitpicking; the town councilors meet monthly to vote on ineffective resolutions, and the Villagers get on with their lives: old women shrill insults across the street at one another and laugh; young girls dream and flirt; boys double-park their speedy, noisy discotheques-on-wheels for the Village has no municipal police; labourers fill The Village’s six bars and shout about football and then go off fishing, planting potatoes or building houses without planning permission; couples come together, undo and then regroup with ‘variable geometry’ thereby ensuring a vibrant, vigorous gene pool; even the Church has fallen into step choosing more carefully the Village curate after two previous men-of-the-cloth married local girls and then another became an actor. Goat farms and vineyards proliferate, apparently the first being one of the Devil’s conditions for his intervention, and the wineries, well …

Dylan Thomas would have been at home in The Village!