THE fact that Chris Stewart gets regular visits from fans to his isolated mountain farm is nothing short of remarkable.
On a recent visit to his 70-hectare Andalucian spread, the directions were so complicated that I was convinced he had sent me a curve-ball.
Not only were they in detailed Spanish, but halfway through, a five km dirt track took a near vertical turn uphill with not a building in site. And I hadn’t even reached the bit where the track got “malisimo”!
Finally after a 30-minute drive, into the breathtaking foothills of the Sierra Nevada south of Granada, the track came to a sudden grinding halt by a rickety stone bridge across the raging River Trevelez. The rest had to be done on foot.
Some 15 minutes later and I arrived (sweating and laden with bottles of wine promised as payment for earlier articles written for the Olive Press) at the low key farmhouse, hidden amid a sea of dense vegetation and with a cow bell at the gate.
The only sign of life were the bare footprints that led up to the portal. Everything else was quiet, even as the day’s 40 degree heat started to subside.
One clang of the bell though and out popped the author, bare-chested and looking like he’d just woken up from a four-hour siesta. Surrounded by a phalanx of rescue dogs, recently taken in from a centre near Granada straight away demonstrated his public school manners.
In a good mood, having recently returned from a promotional tour for a new book on sailing Three Ways to Capsize a boat: An Optimist Afloat, he chuckled, as he set about preparing a fabulous supper of minced wild boar straight from his land with home-made pomegranate syrup and mashed potatoes.
The wild boar, it turns out, are the bane of his life. There are hundreds of them, apparently, and they have been systematically tearing up his vegetable garden, crops and irrigation channels.
“A couple of them rollicking in a field makes it look like a huge tractor got stuck,” he explains. “I am actually going to buy a shotgun to keep their numbers down.”
I have come to meet the author – best known for his trilogy of books, starting with Driving Over Lemons, about life at this very farmstead – to learn about his drive to lessen his carbon footprint.
A self-confessed ecologist, Stewart, who moved to Spain over two decades ago, has written much about the local environment and campaigns regularly against “water-hungry” golf courses, quarries and the over development of the coast.
With the help – or should that be supervision – of his wife Ana Exton (“I am just the erk, she gives the orders”), they have worked hard to make their rambling farmhouse as carbon-neutral as possible.
Speaking modestly of their achievements, Chris explains: “We are just seeking to have the lightest possible ecological footprint. To be honest we don’t use the term carbon-neutral because we don’t really understand the concept. It is very complex and baffling. We only need to go 100kms in our car and we have given off 70 kilos of carbon and that messes things up.”
But they are doing their bit in many other ways, attempting to live entirely off their solar panels, and by using a clever system of planting and shade to prevent the house from heating up.
As well as ivy creeping across every wall, they have cleverly installed pergolas on top of their roofs to keep the direct sunlight off the house.
Even better (and coincidentally the same method being used by his friend and former band-mate from Genesis, Peter Gabriel in London) he has planted lawns on top of his roofs to create more natural insulation.
He has also spent a small fortune installing the most stylish state-of-the-art reed pool below the home. After six years of fine tuning it is full of water – not to mention frogs and even grass snakes – that is good enough to drink.
“We live in the coolest place in the Alpujarras,” he says sitting under his corrugated iron roof terrace, which is bedecked in jasmine, wisteria and bougainvillea. “We have created our own micro-climate like the Arabs did when they lived here. The key is creating shade and using water cleverly and carefully. We make sure we use all our grey water in the garden, which is why it is so green around the house.
“All the vegetation ensures that it is so cool we never have to consider air conditioning. We don’t even need to have fans, not even for my afternoon nap.”
It is certainly a charming home. Distributed over two wings – a newer and older part – it is both modest and typical of the region. Built entirely from local materials, the floors are made from slate and stone, and cobbles line the terraces outside. Everywhere is deep shade.
The couple, who have been together for 34 years, are also becoming experts at recycling, in particular, their organic waste. And rather than have one big compost heap they have 20. “We start new ones all the time,” explains Chris. “They take so much longer to rot down than in the UK due to the low rainfall! So we start new ones every few months. I am also under orders to pee on them as it helps to speed up the process, and Annie even gave me a bucket to pee in for Valentine’s Day, so I don’t waste anything.”
On the subject of urine, the couple are also now considering building a straw bale bathroom and even installing a “Turkish foot plate”, better known as a squat toilet.
“Let’s face it, they are so much healthier than sitting on a loo,” he insists, adding that they are even on the verge of banning toilet paper in a bid to save paper. “Let’s face it the world is divided into the washers and the wipers and where they squat to crap they are often much healthier than us,” he claims. “Using paper to clean yourself is anything but clean. Water is much more hygienic.”
It is the subject of water that has been of so much concern to the author and his wife over recent years. “We live in one of the driest areas in Europe and here, if it wasn’t for the snow melt from the Sierra Nevada, we would be in real trouble.”
While Ana has been carefully noting the number of rainy days they get a year over the last decade (it is often no more than 20), Chris has been campaigning against the spread of water-hungry golf courses, in particular a scheme near him at Gojay. He describes it as “a theme park”, where they want to build 2,500 homes right next to the Sierra Nevada national park.
He is also concerned about the over-use of aquifers for bottled water.
“It is amazing how much water is being taken from our nearby Lanjaron bottling plant. So many lorries leave there every day heading up north, where they have much more water. And think of all the fuel that is being used.”
He is also convinced that the increase of global warming and desertification from Africa into Spain is going to cause more outbreaks of leishmania and malaria.
“But ultimately mankind needs to be cut down by a plague,” he insists. “We are already too densely populated. Six billion people is far too many, and when we get to nine billion it is going to be impossible. We need a big leveller, like perhaps this swine flu.”
He also believes the recession has also come at a good time. “It has come as a blessed relief for the Spanish countryside,” he says. “But I think it will just be a brief hiatus and we must pray that the law catches up and gets stricter.”
Ultimately he believes that it would still be possible to turn the clock back and return the “disgraced landscape” of the Costa del Sol back – in part – to how it once was.
“The tourist boom that brought Spain up by its boots into the 20th century was a good thing, but it wouldn’t now be too late to take the concrete monstrosities down.
“Through clever landscaping and better uses of golf courses, they could bring the coast back from the brink. They have the know-how to to do it, but will anyone take the decision?”
Given half the chance he would love to be in charge of the region’s tourism. “I would put the ecology first. I would create thousands of jobs, replanting and landscaping. Trying to save the region and, above all, promoting and stimulating the inland areas, which are so wonderful.”
Ultimately, despite the dangers for the region, his long term plan is to stay exactly where he is.
“This is our garden of Eden and pension and in our old age I hope we’ll be stumbling around here on our zimmer frames plucking fruit from the trees and stooping down for veg.
“Eventually, of course, we both want to be buried under one of the old olive trees.”
And then of course, someone can write the book Driving Over Mr & Mrs Lemons (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun).
Chris Stewart’s new book Three Ways to Capsize A boat: An Optimist Afloat is out now.
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