Paul Richardson explains how he fell in love with the rural land of a tranquil island


MEMOIR 

Hidden Valley 

by Paul Richardson (Abacus Books £20, 288pp) 

Thirty years ago, journalist Paul ­Richardson left London to make his home on the island of Ibiza, where rents were cheap and life was idyllic. 

Within a few years, though, Ibiza had begun to change, becoming ‘a fiefdom of the super-rich’ and a raucous party destination. 

Dismayed by the transformation of their tranquil island, Richardson and his partner Nacho decided to move to the Extremadura, a rural region in the far west of Spain which couldn’t have been more different. 

Paul Richardson and his partner moved the a rural part of western Spain and transformed the surroundings. At first their new plot was nothing more than ‘a clearing in a forest of brambles, like something out of a fairy tale’, but they could imagine building their own house there and living surrounded by orchards of citrus fruit, cherries, peaches and apricots, with a vegetable garden and contented animals grazing nearby

Paul Richardson and his partner moved the a rural part of western Spain and transformed the surroundings. At first their new plot was nothing more than ‘a clearing in a forest of brambles, like something out of a fairy tale’, but they could imagine building their own house there and living surrounded by orchards of citrus fruit, cherries, peaches and apricots, with a vegetable garden and contented animals grazing nearby

They bought some land and set about pursuing their dream of a pared-down, self-sufficient lifestyle, where they could eat ‘clean’ food: ‘Not in the prissy Gwyneth Paltrow sense, but food that tastes vibrantly of itself and, importantly, doesn’t need to be paid for,’ Richardson writes. 

At first their new plot was nothing more than ‘a clearing in a forest of brambles, like something out of a fairy tale’, but they could imagine building their own house there and living surrounded by orchards of citrus fruit, cherries, peaches and apricots, with a vegetable garden and contented animals grazing nearby. 

This memoir is firmly in the mould of Peter Mayle’s A Year In Provence and Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons: bumbling outsiders move into a rural area in southern Europe, make lots of mistakes, meet eccentric locals and are eventually embraced as part of the community. What makes Hidden Valley different is that Richardson is far more interested in the land than in the people. 

He revels in the beauty of the countryside, from the nightingale’s ‘peals of melody’ in spring to the ancient fruit trees which emerge from the brambles that had swamped them for years. 

As they get to grips with the terrain, Richardson writes lyrically of their increasingly bountiful harvests, ‘the year’s first lustrous black aubergines, the green peppers and courgettes, the strawberries and apricots, the French beans so fresh they squeaked as you bit them’. 

Be warned, there are also some graphic accounts of the despatching of the rabbits and pigs they raise. 

Richardson doesn’t shy away from the pitfalls of this lifestyle. Building their eco-friendly house takes forever, not least because the builders disappear for a whole year before returning, with no explanation, to complete the work. Drought and wildfires are a constant worry; one summer the fire races right up to their property, leaving the surrounding countryside blackened and scorched, yet miraculously sparing their house. A violent hailstorm wrecks the garden, wiping out that year’s harvest. 

Other disasters, amusingly, are self-inflicted. The couple’s attempts to make drinkable wine are an epic failure: ‘The harder we tried to correct our errors, the worse our wines became,’ Richardson laments. 

Dismayed by the transformation of their tranquil island, Richardson and his partner Nacho decided to move to the Extremadura,(pictured)  a rural region in the far west of Spain which couldn’t have been more different

Dismayed by the transformation of their tranquil island, Richardson and his partner Nacho decided to move to the Extremadura,(pictured)  a rural region in the far west of Spain which couldn’t have been more different

There is some compensation in the fact their vinegar, topped up with bottles of ‘failed wine’, is superb. 

Although there is much talk of living off the land, Richardson concedes that true self-sufficiency is almost impossible to achieve. They still have to buy salt, sugar, pasta, rice, tea, coffee, and fuel for their car. 

Luckily they have their other jobs to sustain them: Nacho travels the world as an agricultural consultant for aid projects, while Richardson regularly comes back to Britain for his journalistic career. 

When they first moved to their hidden valley, Richardson was fearful that their new neighbours would be hostile to a gay couple. 

The book ends with his marriage to Nacho in the local town hall. Guests come from all over the world, ‘but a greater number of the well-wishers are villagers, who crowd the square to hurl rice, confetti and compliments’. 

It’s a happy ending to a beguiling book about a lifestyle that many of us dream about, but few achieve



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