18 Nov 2015

6. John Hill

It just had to be an Englishman who way back in the early sixteenth century planted the first vineyard on El Hierro. His name was John Hill and he came from Taunton in Devon. What he had come out here to do in what then must have been a godforsaken place is a mystery. Perhaps like me he just wanted to plant a vineyard. Or, more likely, he was running away from someone or something. Some historians suggest he was arrested by the Inquisition fifty years later for bad behavior but I think they are mixing him up with another adventurous Englishman, Thomas Nichols.

There must have been grapevines on the island before John Hill’s time: the earliest colonists came from winegrowing areas like Portugal and Spain  – why do we say winegrowing and not vinegrowing? They surely brought vines with them at least to plant outside their front doors. John Hill, however, saw what we would now call a “business opportunity”, but we don’t know if he made a fortune or simply drank himself to death.

We don’t really know where he planted his vineyard, either. The most likely place is somewhere near where the airport and port are now. At that time it would have had the best climate because the damp air and more frequent rain would have benefitted the vines. Diseases such as mildew and powdery mildew that thrive in such conditions had not yet been introduced. Wherever it was, he must have been held in certain esteem by the locals since they named a promontory after him: La Punta Juanil. And I’ve named my own wine after him.

5. Laurisilva

Laurisilva of course means "Laurel Forest". It is a damp evergreen forest that thrives in the humidity of the cloudy northern slopes of the island and in some places goes over the ridge and down until it mingles with the pine forest. In fact, there is little left of the true laurisilva, the forest that extended all around the Mediterranean 40-15 million years ago. Over the centuries the representative trees have been cut down for fuel, and cabinet- and tool-making, and have largely been replaced by species such as "Haya" (literally "Beech" but really quite different) and Tree Heath, a sort of giant heather. On a smaller scale you may find an illusive strawberry tree; a clearing of forget-me-nots; a needleless holly, red berries and all; curious ferns, some with long furry tentacles, others with heart-shaped leaves, and with luck a creeping Canary Bell-flower.

I love the monteverde. It reminds me of the Rackham illustrations in my childhood storybooks. The rays of sunlight pierce the darkness and mist, illuminating the twisted trunks and branches, and the shaddows suggest strange inhabitants. On the side of the gullies, the roots stretch out to trip you up. Blackbirds click, tits purr and a myriad of other little birds chirp and chatter. You may even see a woodcock, or a great buzzard may come near to warn you away from her nest. The air is pungent with leaf-mould and decaying wood, or wild garlic if you tread on it. Fungi, mostly inedible or even poisonous, come up singly or in armies or make fairy rings around tree stumps. There are few animals in the evergreen forest, except for the odd feral cat and an occasional rabbit.

If you do venture into it, though, be very sure of your sense of orientation. The forest undergrowth hides the lie of the slopes, gullies and deep ravines. I once found a young German couple hopelessly lost, soaking wet and shivering like frightened kittens in their light clothing. It was the middle of winter and they were more than three thousand feet up. They might not have made it to safety.

Heath Trees and Forget-me-nots in the evergreen forest