The last Sunday in May found Helen and I waiting at Gatwick for a 9am flight to Bilbao, heading for the Picos de Europa. We were excited and a bit apprehensive.
This was our first holiday specifically to search for alpines and we weren’t sure whether the mountain walking would be too strenuous for us, or whether we would find a botanically-focused holiday too taxing.
In the event, the holiday we had chosen, consisting of a series of organised wildflower walks, proved to be ideal for us:
Furthermore, the ‘botanical enthusiast’ who would help us with all this turned out to be an old friend of ours, who refused to be described as an expert, but whose enthusiasm charmed the whole group.
The hard work of organising and facilitating our trips was done by two holiday company reps, who worked tirelessly to make the holiday a wonderful experience, accompanying us on the walks and demonstrating a delightful enthusiasm for, and interest in, the flowers we saw.
The flight across the Bay of Biscay was quickly over and as the plane taxied from the runway to the airport building at Bilbao, the grass was littered with little black patches. I didn’t dare suggest that these might be tongue orchids – Serapias cordigera – but that fancy was soon confirmed.
The long drive from Bilbao to Potes (some 200km, past all sorts of interesting places) provided an opportunity to get to know some of the other guests better, and for some a quiet snooze after the early start, whilst others took the opportunity for plant spotting along the road verges. I had not realised how pervasive and extensive the Eucalyptus forest is along the north Spanish coast. Initially, most of the colour we saw was valerian (Centranthus ruber), in red, pink and latterly white variants. But in amongst were patches of more exciting pinks – spikes of Dactylorhiza and the bright flashes of Pyramidal Orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis), before the first of many extended groups of what were unmistakeably Serapias cordigera, identical to what I had glimpsed out of the airplane window.
At Unquera, amid massed ranks of Serapias, we turned off the dual carriageway, onto a winding road which led us up a river valley, through the small town of Panes and into the mountains.
Although it is less than 30km from Panes to Potes, it takes the best part of an hour, as the road narrows and starts to wind between the limestone cliffs of the Desfiladero de la Hermida. The river rushed between boulders and across shingle rapids, with long glides and pools of deep azure snowmelt water. Both I and a Scottish lady in the seat behind me were inspired to dream of fishing this water, though that was not to be; the only hire shop our reps knew of was for climbing equipment, not fishing equipment and later enquiries of fishermen we encountered suggested that it was necessary to obtain a permit from Santander.
The cloud which had been with us since the airport descended as we got higher and then, just as we were anticipating a shower, broke up as we reached the southern side of the mountains and we exited the gorge in glorious sunshine.
Stopping on the roadside, we had a wonderful view of the mountains, holding back the wave of cloud bringing showers to the north.
Soon we were at the small hotel in the hamlet of Tama where we were staying, sitting in the valley near the river, surrounded by meadows and gently rolling, with views of snow-clad mountains to both north and south.
In these views, looking south, you can see part of the bridge across the river, with a cottage built into it.
Our friend and botanical enthusiast was there to greet us with his infectious enthusiasm and no sooner had we dumped our bags and ‘freshened up’ than we had agreed to accompany him on a short stroll up the river valley towards Potes. The view back north from the bridge was spectacular – the bank of cloud was starting to break over the top of the mountains. The north side of the bridge was thick with ferns – I don’t know what they were.
Our path led us along the river, between meadows of drying grass heads, including wild oats, blowing in the wind.
There was still a haze of colour across the meadows – the pink of mallow (I don’t know which), mixed with the contrasting blues of Wild Clary (Salvia verbenacea) and Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare). All beautiful in the late afternoon sun. I thought I would see more of the Salvia in better condition later on in the holiday, and higher up, but we saw it in relatively few places. The Echium, by contrast, was everywhere but these backlit closeups of it are still some of my favourites.
With my camera in my hand, it didn’t take long before I was straying behind the rest of the group, finding more and more to capture – an unfamiliar beetle crossing the path, the painted leaves of the Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum) or the wild roses along the river.
Our objective on this short excursion was a small group of lizard orchids (Himantoglossum hircinum). Somewhat stunted, as a result of the long dry spring, these were not as spectacular as the ones I have seen at Sandwich in Kent and the rest of the party were rather unimpressed by their first wild orchid. For me, it was evidence of the richness of the land around us and I was excited at the prospect of seeing what riches higher, cooler and possibly damper meadows might hold.
From here, some of our party continued the walk into Potes for a first view of the town and a drink. Helen and I decided to conserve our energy for the exertions of the morrow and returned to the Posada.
The adventure had begun.
Jon lives and gardens on the north side of the Hogsback on the border between Hampshire and Surrey, on a heavy clay soil. He is a long standing member of the AGS and has been treasurer of the local group in Woking for many years. He is especially interested in bulbs of all sorts, particularly those from South Africa, and is progressing slowly towards his Gold Medal at shows, at the rate of roughly one first per year.
However, he is best known within the AGS as an enthusiastic amateur photographer. For about 10 years he was responsible for organising the artistic and photographic section of the AGS shows around the country, and also for organising the show photography. During this period, he set up and ran the AGS Digital Image Library. He is still actively involved in plant photography, both at shows (he visits many shows each year to catalogue the extraordinary achievements of the exhibitors) and in gardens both public and private, and he makes regular outings to view and photograph wild flowers in the UK.
If you have any comments or queries for Jon, you can contact him direct at firstname.lastname@example.org