15 Dec 2017

47. Back from Hell

The dramatic light as we left El Hierro reminded me of
the romantic illustrations in the books of my youth.  The
tiny dot you can see on the oily surface of the water in
the distance may be Charon and his ferry crossing the
Styx with souls on their way to Hades.
I’m not saying Tenerife is Hell. Far from it! But sometimes it feels like it. We recently travelled to Tenerife where I was to have an urgent hip replacement. The whole adventure, if you may call it that, took a week. A hellish week.

To begin with, although I usually take things in my stride I felt apprehensive at the prospect for it is an operation that requires quite a bit of cutting and chopping. The consideration shown by everyone only heightened my feelings of helplessness and vulnerability as I was pushed around in a wheelchair. Drugged with painkillers I was in no way able to react rationally to the professionals at the hospital: I just went into automatic “obey” mode. After four hours of surgical oblivion, our large family came to see me: a Goyesque nightmare of unfocussed, barely recognizable faces asking me how I felt as I floated in whatever the nurses were pumping into my veins.

So, really, psychologically I wasn’t exactly in a condition to enjoy myself. That’s the inside bit. But Tenerife, the place, did have a lot to add to my visit to Hades. First the traffic. Cars everywhere: the journey up to Santa Cruz on the motorway was simply an enormous traffic jam speeding along at 110 km/h: one steady three-lane stream of vehicles so dense I soon felt we knew the family in the car beside us.
Everyone was wonderfully considerate,
at the airports, on the ferry, at the
hospital, but, as the song goes:
"Isn´t it nice to be home again ..."
photo: C. Axelsson

Vehicles also produce a lot of noise and emissions in addition to the mercaptans spilled out by the refinery, a gas which affects my insides. Most probably my brain was registering my surroundings in slow-motion and in contrast everyone was busily hurrying everywhere and noisily doing things, babbling shrilly. I just wanted to get back home.

Back to our home in the hills, to the clean fresh air, to the silence in which you can hear your heart beat and the blood coursing through your veins, to the trees which sway in the wind but don’t run about, to the light and colours of the landscape and the darkness and stars at night, to the curry-smell of last year’s fennel and damp earth and pines, … We who live on El Hierro are privileged. I cannot think of anywhere I would rather be. Certainly not …

26 Oct 2017

46. White Elephants

White elephants are endemic, though not exclusive, to Spain, including our island. Whereas the public works described in my last post are largely attributable to the vision and negotiating skills of a particular person, our white elephants seem to be of more diffuse parentage and are most likely the well-intentioned but unquestioned brain-children of technocrats in our institutions. A few quite visible examples:

At the La Peña vantage point, next to the restaurant, a Congress Centre was planned. On first sight, it seemed a brilliant idea. The site was perfect, with beautiful views over the ocean and El Golfo, with good roads to Valverde and the airport as well as the rest of the island … An excellent venue for serious congresses and other events, far away from big cities and their distractions, and with excellent IT connectivity. But perhaps no-one considered accommodation for 100 or 200 participants and their spouses. Besides, there is not much for the spouses to do on the island. Or perhaps the money ran out. In any case the project was abandoned and the half-built shell has been sitting there for three or four years, its expensive floorboards warping and its ceilings falling in. Officially another victim of the financial crisis. I recommend you visit the La Peña restaurant for lunch, and when you do, have a look at this still-born pachyderm.

The view of El Golfo from the La Peña vantage point where the Congress Centre was to be. The colourful swimming pool is in the centre of the photo about a sixth of the way up, an oval enclosure between some houses and the rocky coastline.
At the same time you might like to look almost vertically down from the La Peña vantage point at a curious sprawling construction near the mini-hotel at Las Puntas. From nearby you’ll see it is a sort of Gaudiesque swimming-pool with colourful tiling, in fact wonderfully exotic. Years ago when they were building it I thought it was going to be a discotheque to compete with those of Ibiza. Perhaps it was. Since then, however, it has only been filled with water a few times and opened to the public in summer. I suspect the problem is that without a buoyant tourist industry there is not a big enough market to make it profitable.

The industrial estate, El Majano, with the cheese factory in the centre. The
proposed factory to transform local produce is the grey building on the
other side of the cheese factory.
Near San Andrés our industrial estate is home to our slaughterhouse, cheese factory, animal feed factory and Mercahierro, mentioned in another post, all public enterprises. As far as I know, no private enterprise has ever started up there, despite certain incentives. About fifteen years ago the Cabildo built a factory on the estate to transform local produce. The idea was to produce jam and other conserves from the island’s excellent fruit as well as processed and packaged vegetables. Another part of the factory would be devoted to packaging and processing meat. Theoretically all of this would be certified organic and there was even talk of making the whole island's agriculture organic. Courses were organized to qualify local workers specifically for the project. On the face of it, it was a winner: it would create jobs directly and indirectly; it would revitalize the island’s primary sector, especially in the foothills; the added value of high-quality organic produce would compensate for the cost of shipping to the other islands, and most importantly it would better the island’s image and bolster pride among the islanders. But something went wrong and the wind is blowing through the open doors of the installation and the unused machinery is wasting away in silence. I think it was not a question of funds. What probably happened was that the visionaries that set it all up were simply incapable of making it work. And private initiative was out of the question.

Just as there are many examples of positive improvements over the years, there are quite a few baby white elephants. But I don’t want to rub it in too much …

23 Oct 2017

45. Into the 21st Century

Over the last 35 years El Hierro has leapt from backwardness into the twenty-first century. At least in public works. The person visibly responsible for this transformation is Tomás Padrón, founder of the insular party, AHI (El Hierro Independent Party – not Independence Party) and President of the Cabildo for most of the time between the late 70’s and the recent crisis. You may not agree with his often apparently marxist policies or you may claim anyone in power during the years of the EU payout bonanza would have done the same or better, but "give credit where credit's due". Here are some of the most salient projects that have made the islanders’ lives so much better.

The Frontera end of the tunnel is hardly noticeable: just a darker semicircle
in the imposing wall surrounding El Golfo.
All in all, the island’s roads are much better than most people would expect for such a small island. The two main towns, Valverde and Frontera, are now connected at sea level by a road which cuts driving time by two thirds and avoids having to motor up more than 1000 metres and down again through the monteverde forest along the ridge of the island’s mountainous backbone. Part of this road is a 2.5 kilometre three-lane tunnel which was drilled from both ends describing an "S" through the mountains. I find it amazing that both bits met up. Another two smaller tunnels have been built between the port and the Parador.

We also have a new highway from Valverde up to San Andrés, making the south of the island more accessible.

Our delightful little airport, more than sufficient for present needs, replaces the scruffy installation we had before. Besides, it’s a perfect example of how well the public responds to a little spoiling from authority. Our new port, greatly enlarged on the old one, caters for large cruisers as well as our daily ferries and includes a pleasure marina. Somehow, though, despite its modern design and efficiency, I miss the charm of the old port and the house with its pretty blue verandah perched on the cliff, the bustle of its popular bar-restaurant, kids diving off the quayside and anglers sitting on the bollards.

Outpatients awaiting their turn for analyses in the foyer
of our hospital.
Depending on who’s estimating the figure, our population is somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 residents. Nevertheless we have a superb little hospital with operating theatres, dialysis, laboratory and imaging, and of course a selection of resident specialists and others that come once a week. Patients who need treatment that cannot be provided here are sent to the main hospitals in Tenerife, if necessary in medical helicopters.

The star of our public works is, of course, the windfarm-come-hydroelectric plant, “La Gorona del Viento”, described in an earlier post. This project is confusingly publicized as providing the island with 100% renewable energy. What is really meant is that one day 100% of the electricity consumed by the island's homes, industries and services will be generated from renewable sources - I don't think electric bulldozers and excavators are very common. The plant was inaugurated in 2015 and at present produces 60% of our electricity. The project obviously favours the island’s environment but otherwise the population, the unconverted whisper, does not seem to benefit from its operation nearly as much as the electrical giant Endesa.

There are many other, less visible projects undertaken during this period of growth. These include the insular domestic water supply ring, day-centres and residences for the elderly, the embellishment and conditioning of urban, rural and seaside facilities, environmental programmes and installations, etc …

26 Sept 2017

44. The Ritual Folk Music of El Hierro

Four hundred years ago Louis XIV, the Sun King, would put on his favourite costume of peacock feathers and prance around the salons of Versailles to the sounds of Le Canarien, the then popular dance of the ‘wild’ Canary islanders but undoubtedly refined for the courtly tastes of the day. Today, Canary folk music (confusingly known in Spanish as ‘Folklore’) has nothing to do with the Sun King’s inspiration but a lot to do with the crucible of peoples the Archipelago has been since then, varied and alive - Folias, Malagueñas, Polkas etc.- now often rendered anodyne by television and the tourist industry. This of course is also true of the folk music of El Hierro, or rather of that folk music the islanders emphatically call ‘folklore’. And here, of course, El Hierro differs from the other islands.

My neighbor has a seven-year-old whose grandfather made him a drum. Not a toy drum. A real big drum, almost as big as the boy, with the name of our village stencilled on the goatskin drum head. This summer we’ve had three months of drumming, at first pretty awful but drums must be in his genes because in the end we found ourselves listening for his progress. His elder brother plays the local flute – a bit of electricity conduit with holes drilled into it – and his father does, too. It is quite unlike any music I had ever heard before coming to the island. This really is folk music and part of the islanders’ folklore in the real sense of the word. It’s only played at processions during religious festivals and accompanies the dancers in red aprons and colourful headdresses you see prancing around like Louis XIV in airport photos and official brochures. The most imporant of these festivals is the "Bajada de la Virgen" (Descent of the Virgin) which is held every four years celebrating the intervention of the island's Patron Saint in putting an end to a terrible drought in 1741. The groups of musicians and dancers from every village in the island accompany Her image on a procession from Her hermitage on the common in the west of the island to Valverde in the east. A video of part of the procession in 2013:

This music is never sung. The instruments are drums, flutes and castanets. The flutes initiate each piece and the drums take their cues from the flutes, rather than the contrary as would be expected. The melodies, called ‘toques’ (tokays), are played in unison by the flutes and sound deceptively similar and basic. However, they are in fact extremely complex and delicate, with hardly discernible variations, even from one phrase to the next. The rhythms played by the flutes seem to flutter around those they have dictated to the drums which, in turn, guide the dancers. Each village has its own set of toques and some have specific uses: for example, for when the dancers are on level ground, or in the nave of a church, or for when the bearers lift the Virgin’s sedan onto their shoulders, and so on.

I don’t know when this unique music arose in, or came to, El Hierro. I have a feeling, however, it owes nothing to the island’s early European settlers and possibly to none of the later arrivals. If this is so it could well predate Louis XIV by centuries and even have been brought to the island when Carthage was still great and the Sahara had not quite dried out. That may well be romantic lucubration on my part but even so I hope this expression of genuine folk music remains just that, ritual folk music, part of the lore that has held and holds, the islanders together as a people, that has helped them, and still helps them, overcome the difficulties and pressures that threaten them. I hope this unique music is never debased to the status of curiosity and tourist attraction; that it is not further normalized or fostered as an element of identity by our institutions, and that it is never part of the school curriculum ... I hope it is left in the hands of the people like the master drum-maker, his son, Maso, and his grandsons, Cristian and Johan, to keep alive and pass down from generation to generation, as it has been for perhaps centuries. But I fear this hope may be a bit too much to ask.

3 Sept 2017

43. A sense of humour.

The first time I visited El Hierro I came with my son, a camera and a rather heavy backpack. We spent the first night sleeping rough on the cold and wet Common (Dehesa) in the west of the island. The morning the sun brought us back to life and in the distance we saw a man sitting on a rock watching his cows grazing. I went forward alone and sat on another rock to his left. Gazing west over the pasture, twisted windcrippled trees and the ocean, he did not look at me nor recognize my presence in any way. After a while I leant over towards him with a packet of cigarettes,
     “Would you like to smoke?”
     “I don’t usually smoke, but to keep you company …” he said, taking one.
We smoked in silence. Then he rummaged in his woolen satchel (talega) and pulled out a diminutive barrel made of a hollowed-out piece of mulberry trunk.
     “Would you like a drink of good wine?” he asked.
     “I don’t usually drink,” I answered, “but to keep you company …”
We both burst into laughter, made friends and he took us back to his house in Sabinosa for lunch.
I know the humour wasn’t all of his making but the experience told me a lot. He had obviously been aware of our presence since the day before. His ignoring me sitting beside him was a test and a provocation. His reply, ‘to keep you company’, was a gambit. He definitely had a fine sense of humour.

The men who built this belfry on top of a small
volcanic cone at some distance from the church
in Frontera must have had a fine sense of
humour: how little we are seen against the back-
drop of the overpowering escarpment. The under-
side of the sea of cloud can just be seen at the
top of the photo.
Of course there’s the raucous, bawdy humour of bars and building sites you find everywhere, but the islanders have their own ingenious humour intended to elicit a smile, or thought, or even to convey an unpalatable truth. Rather like English humour.

Eloy saw a bar of toilet soap one of the children had dropped into our drinking water cistern.
     “Don’t worry,” he said, “like that you wash your insides as well!”.

We had arrived for a short holiday a few days before and the carpenter’s wife said,
     “Oh! You’re here then! We weren’t aware.”
     “We don’t make a lot of noise. You know that.” I replied.
     “That’s why we put up with you!” she said with a smile and a chuckle.

On my way back from a morning in the vineyard, I stopped at a friend’s house. One of the men who were also there started pulling my leg about the size of my hoe, worn down almost to a toy by years of work. My friend came to my rescue:
     “Shut up, you lazy son of a bitch! You don’t know what work is. I saw the Englishman on his way to the vineyard this morning. His hoe was brand new!”

On our first trip to the island, my son and I were in Frontera looking up at the vertiginous 3,000 foot escarpment we were about to ascend. We could not see the top hidden by the sea of cloud lower down.
     “It’s a long climb up,” I said to the young man we were talking to.
     “What you can see, yes. And what you can’t, too!” was his comment.

But I suppose the most characteristic humour is in the nicknames. A limping mechanic was known as ‘the crankshaft’; another whose low-cut jeans were always showing a bit too much was ‘the piggy bank’; the landowners and tradesmen of Valverde were ‘white-tails’ while the rest of the islanders were ‘black-tails’; ‘skin and bones’, ‘the noble’, ‘parsley’, … Sometimes admittedly they are cruel, but there is always an element of tenderness.

25 Aug 2017

42. Climate change, what change?

Calima over El Pinar yesterday afternoon. You can't even see the forest-covered mountains behind the village in the middle of the picture.

If Donald Trump had been living on El Hierro, we could forgive his denial of climate change. Sitting in a huge deep tub of cool water – remember the Cold Canary Current? – and fanned by the Trade Winds, you can’t expect us to feel average changes of less than 0.5ºC in temperature year after year. That’s what the meteorological institute, infallible in hindsight, tells us has been happening. But this year we know something has happened. What I describe is the something in El Pinar where I live. If you want a general idea of the island, compensate for our altitude and orientation, i.e. take off a few degrees in summer and add a few in winter, reduce insolation by 30% and increase humidity a little.

Let’s start with the temperature. Over the years we have noticed a general tendency towards longer, but not necessarily colder, winters and shorter, hotter, summers and more heatwaves – this year we’re in our fourth or fifth. In any case, where I live it used to go up to 35ºC only on three or four days each summer. This August it has hovered around or above that every day.

Malmsey (Malvasia) grapes. These would normally be ready for
harvesting about now, but temperature, low humidity and insolation
have dried the bunches before they ripened. Some vines have
lost their leaves and on many the grapes are simply mummified.
At 850 metres above sea level, we have noticeably less muck in the air above us, and being almost in the tropics the sun is right overhead. So our insolation is at best something to be reckoned with. This year it is brutal. Yesterday morning I experimented with my digital thermometer: the air temperature in the shade was 30ºC, after ten minutes’ exposure to the sun the probe read 57ºC and after 20 minutes it read 64ºC. NO SUNBATHING!

Talking of muck in the air, we used to have ‘calima’ – airborne dust from the Sahara – during summer. Nowadays it appears any time of the year.

Very strong winds are less frequent. Fifteen years ago one blew away our greenhouse and snapped the trunk of our largest apricot tree. Although we still have north and northwesterly winds they are not nearly so strong.

Five years ago, in winter at least once or twice a week we had a dehumidifier on for a few hours in our bedroom. Since January this year the relative humidity has rarely gone above 40% and has often been below 20%. I wake up every morning with a tongue like old leather and hair like Rod Stewart. Although relative humidity should ideally be around 60-70%, here it is normally between 50 and 65%, a bit lower at the height of summer.

Perhaps the most important item in our climate equation is rainfall. As we have grapevines and fruit trees, growing years are more relevant and so our figure for the first year shown, ‘2009’ really means ‘October 2008 to September 2009’. Our average rainfall of 477 mm/yr is quite high for the Canaries but the total each year is very erratic, from 100 mm to 730 mm – or litres /square metre – and most of that falls heavily on a few odd days, generally in November and March. Between March and November we have drought. I can find no pattern or correlation in the annual rainfall figures, except certain coincidence with the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) sending us areas of low pressure, westerly winds and rain, or withholding them.

Annual rainfall from October to September, starting October 2008.
Figures reflect the rainfall measured at Manacen, El Pinar.

So if you take all these factors (I’m sure there are more but these are quite enough), put them in a box and shake energetically, you get this year’s, or that year’s, weather. It seems for our agricultural year 2016-2017 only the worst factors came into play: our throats are parched, the trees are almost leafless, the grape harvest is in tatters, our gardens are withered and we can’t go outside between twelve and five. For the first time in my life I wish it were winter instead of summer! Perhaps the year 2017-2018 will be a hand of aces. And maybe Climate Change will give us a more obliging old NAO year after year and our island will become the eden it deserves to be. Anyway I don’t think we want DT to come to find out!

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

40. 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

39. 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.

This ruin on the road known as Betenama may not have been a house but nevertheless illustrates some of the
characteristics of a humble dwelling. The rafters resting on the the ridge beam at one end and on the wall at the
other - notice the slope at the top of the wall. Inside the building some of the beams supporting the loft still
remain. What is disconcerting is the door - the only opening in this building: it seems to be on the same
height as the floor of the loft and it is very low. This building is really a very fine example of dry stone
walling, with the absolute minimum of squaring.


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

38. 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

37. 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

36. Malgareo

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

35. 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!

5 Feb 2017

34. Whispers from the past

Some time ago one often used to hear that the people of El Hierro spoke “fifteenth century” Spanish.
I suppose the argument was that since no-one could deny they spoke differently to other Canary islanders and that since El Hierro had been isolated for so many years, the way they spoke was derived from the Spanish of the early colonizers and therefore in some way “superior”. I don’t know how a fifteenth century settler spoke but I do believe there must be something in the claim.

Cloud mist coming up the cliff to the "letime" near Jinama
at more than 1,000 metres above Frontera. To get an idea
look at the posts "First Impressions 1970's" and "First
Impressions 2015".
First of all the islanders’ pronunciation was quite unlike that of speakers from the rest of the islands. Some examples: in the Canaries the “s” usually sounds more like an English “h”, on El Hierro most people pronounced it as an “s” and in some cases, more a question of exaggerated identity I believe, even a powerful “sh”. Among other, perhaps primitive, features were the use by some speakers of stressed “or”, substituted in modern Spanish by the diphthong “uer”, and “u” instead of “o”. For example, “portu” instead of the modern Spanish “puerto” (port). I often thought such speakers’ rich, deep intonation sounded very much like that common in northwestern Spain.

You’ll have noticed I have used here the past tense. This is because it is a rare pleasure to hear this speech today, mainly replaced by an often brazen sort of mid-Atlantic Venezuelan drawl brought back by returning emigrants.

Apart from the accent, there are certain words commonly used the meaning of which suggests an early origin. One of the most surprising is “luego” which here often means “soon, shortly” while in modern Spanish it means the opposite “later” as in “Hasta luego!” (See you later!).  Another word is “jable” a kind of gravelly sand from the French “sable”, perhaps the only word that the first Norman settlers may have bequeathed us. There are also certain words that are clearly of Cuban origin. You very rarely hear on any of the other islands the word “candela” to refer to a forest fire. And “sitio” here may refer to a “homestead”, a self-sufficient extended family home. Another peculiarity, evidently a product of living on what is basically a huge mountain sticking out of the sea, is the way “abajo” (down) often means “towards the sea” rather than that something is “lower” than the speaker. The same happens with “arriba” (up) meaning “away from the sea”. Just like people in England going “up” to London although much of the city is very much lower than they perhaps are.

The beautiful aromatic bush called "Mol".
Except for a huge number of place names, surprisingly few words may date back to pre-Hispanic times. At a guess, I’d say that at least 50% of the island’s place names are aboriginal while there are hardly any native terms for everyday life, something that may reflect on how the language of occupation replaced the vernacular. Of course we have no idea of the meaning of the place names but many of them begin with “Te-” or “Ta-” and coincide with a hill or vantage point. Then there are plant names that are clearly pre-Hispanic, for example, “barrasa” a kind of wild garlick, “garacera” wild rocket and “mol” a wormwood known as “incienso” (incense) on the other islands. El Hierro was recognized to be the island that made most use of edible wild plants so there were likely to have been a good number of pre-Hispanic plant names that were in use long after colonization but are forgotten today.

There are one or two very special words that refer to geographical accidents. The one I like best is “letime” (pron. le-tee-may) which means any piece of flat ground at the top of a cliff. Ideal if you were a proud aboriginal prince contemplating suicide rather than slavery!

27 Jan 2017

33. History, Part 2 : Occupation to Emigration

The conquest of the Canary Islands took almost
Iluminure of the opening page of the original Le Canarien (1490)
the whole of the fifteenth century to complete. El Hierro was one of the first to be absorbed by the new order perhaps because, however wayward the princesses or brave the warriors legend will have us believe, it was a walkover for the Normans. In 1403 Gadifer de la Salle reconnoitered the island and in his chronicle, Le Canarien, he says he and his men spent 22 days here but, uncharacteristically, he mentions no skirmish with the natives. After years of slave raids by Barbary pirates, and by others from nearer home, the native population, never very numerous, must have been decimated and could have afforded no resistance to the invaders. The occupation by the first Norman settlers, then, represented an abrupt change, not transition, from prehistory to history.

Like Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, El Hierro became one of the feudal domains of the Norman adventurer, Jean de Bethencourt, who owed allegiance to the Crown of Castille. These domains changed hands several times until the abolition of the feudal system in the nineteenth century. Under this system the at best precarious economy of the island meant that the islanders, burdened by levies and tithes, must have lived in the most abject misery. The new society following the demise of the Bimbaches was for centuries based on a similar subsistence economy and it was only with the growth of the wine and spirit industry in the eighteenth century that things began to change. But only for a short while. At the middle of the nineteenth century even this collapsed and the islanders were back at square one, faced with emigration.

Gradually, emigrants to Cuba, Argentina and later Venezuela began to send small sums of money to the families left behind in order to buy from impoverished or absentee landlords the humble homes they had grown up in and the fields they had worked. Emigration peaked with the droughts of the nineteen-forties. In the late seventies we found every family on the island had a son, father or husband in Venezuela and many women had been left behind to bring up the youngsters. This period of intense emigration had profound effects on the people and the landscape. The land was parceled up, areas that were traditionally pasture were put to cultivation, the walls we see everywhere were built, as were most of the typical houses in the villages. The famous “muda” – a seasonal household transhumance – was slowly abandoned. The port of La Estaca was no longer the end of the islander’s world but a doorway to freedom and, hopefully, a better life. Customs and traditions that regulated village life gradually fell into disuse and even the islanders’ speech changed. Most importantly, the islanders’ collective memory was reset to coincide with the period of emigration, as though all that had gone before was better ignored. Perhaps it was.

This period lasting at least seventy-five years represents a change even more profound, though not as abrupt, than the initial occupation which took no more than perhaps two or three years. And, this time, it prepared the islanders for entry into the modern world.