Oxford University Cave Club

Cave Research Group publication 14

1961 Oxford University Expedition to Northern Spain

1961 Expedition Report (CRG 14)

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Domestic Organisation in Spain

Our arrival at the mountains of the Picos de Europa where we were to make our home for the following six weeks was somewhat dampened by the thick mist and heavy rain.

Suitable campsites seemed impossible to find and the discovery of a government-built refuge - "El Refugio de la Vega de Enol" - was too tempting to miss. The original intention was to stay there for two days to dry out and to look for the best campsite, but we soon realised that the refuge was eminently suitable for a base camp. Accordingly permission was obtained from the mayor of Cangas de Onis, the local town, twelve miles away in the valley, to stay at the refuge for the duration of our trip.

The refuge (Plate I) consisted of a solidly-built four-roomed cottage with a long verandah on one side. The "caretaker", Senor Ramos, lived with his wife and a varied selection of relations in one of the downstairs rooms, the other three being for the use of any travellers who wished to stay there. The rooms were equipped with bunks in two tiers and little else. We were given the use of the two upper rooms, which we reserved for sleeping, on condition that we lent one of these if there were an additional number of guests at the refuge. This, in fact, happened only once and so for the rest of the time we were able to live a rather more comfortable life than we had first anticipated.

The refuge was also used as the local "taberna" - stocks of wine and brandy were held (at 6d a litre), and every so often the local shepherds would congregate and sing songs for half the night. Sr Ramos was a fine character, who owned some pigs, donkeys and chickens, and a house in the valley to which he went for the winter. He was unofficial "king" of the local Picos region, but, to us, he will always be a man who, with his wife, showed us great kindness, and on a return visit, welcomed us with bear hugs, kisses on both cheeks and large quantities of wine!

The refuge occupies a fine situation, 3000 feet above sea level. The hillside rises steeply behind it and below, on the valley floor, are a track, a spring and a shrine at which occasional Masses were held. At the end of the valley lies the Lago Enol, a mere three minutes walk away, and on the other side of the valley wooded foothills lead up to a magnificent panorama of mountain peaks rising to 8000 feet. The short distance to the lake was a great advantage: we could have a refreshing swim - a frequent need in the exceptionally hot weather we encountered -and we were able to provide ourselves with very tasty dishes of crayfish caught on the shores of the lake.

We quickly decided that, for an efficient and comfortable stay, some degree of organisation was necessary. The upstairs rooms were used solely for sleeping and personal belongings. On occasion some slept in tents or by the fire on the verandah. At one end of the verandah stood an open fire-place which held a roaring log fire every evening - an essential at such heights. Around the fire were several collapsible chairs, and these, combined with the low wall along the outside of the verandah and the stone shelf that ran along the back, provided space for everybody to sit around the fire to eat, discuss, drink and sing.

Next came a table, fashioned from the bench seats that we had made for the rear of the lorries and covered with polythene sheeting, for food preparation, washing up and similar activities. The primus stoves stood on the back shelf and next to them were our food supplies - mostly in biscuit tins to keep the dust and the dirt out - this was the "living area".

The area around the entrance to the verandah, which was just a break in the low stone walling - with the essential anti-pig barrier - was used for changing and for the storage of caving kit, while most of our equipment was kept to the right of the entrance.

The right hand end of the verandah was also the "working area". There was another polythene covered table for writing records, drawing surveys etc., and at the far end, a further table upon which the chemicals were stored. This end was the chemist/photographer's domain, except for the apparatus for recharging the alkali and acid accumulators.

Drying kit is always a problem where caves are concerned and we were very lucky in that the weather was hot and dry for most of our stay and a simple clothesline strung between the pillars of the verandah was quite sufficient.

On the roof, which could easily be reached from the steeply sloping hillside behind the verandah, was the meteorological station, with rain gauges, thermometers etc. The petrol generator was positioned behind the refuge in an attempt to avoid the unpleasant noise disturbing everybody in the valley. This was used to recharge the caving accumulators and also the 6-volt batteries on which we ran several light bulbs at strategic places along the verandah. With two "Tilley" lamps in addition we were well lit at nights, a useful point when several people would be working in the evenings at several different places.

Further to the right of the refuge, several large pits were dug for refuse. We had an original method of disposing of our more edible refuse, in the form of "Fred", a large sow, who grew considerably larger during our stay and who had a great liking for potato peelings, waste cabbage and similar garbage. She soon learnt to answer to her name and would come running from the other side of the valley upon a shout of "Fred".

Our arrival at the refuge coincided with heavy rain, and the area surrounding the front was a thick muddy morass. To stop everything and everywhere becoming covered in a thick layer of this mud, our first task was to spend a very hard day's work building a path. The path was very successful and local shepherds came great distances solely to see "los Ingleses" and the path that they had built. A tribute to our path building is that it was still there two years after, and still kept mud from the refuge.

Our water supply was the spring in the bottom of the valley. The water was quite palatable, though rather hard. So as most foodstuffs were taken from England, and with water and wine freely available, only a few trips had to be made to Cangas de Onis.

Our daily routine, of course, varied very considerably, but as a general rule, an early and extensive breakfast was eaten, with a cold lunch, often eaten in the mountains or underground, followed by a large dinner, at nightfall, about 8.0 p.m. A rota, in pairs, was organised for cooking, washing up, water carrying etc., and whilst cooking operations were in progress, most people would write up the day's work, draw surveys, bring their records up to date and so forth. After dinner the next day's activities would be discussed round a blazing log fire; thus, we quickly evolved an extremely pleasant mode of living, to which I, personally, could easily revert. Furthermore, the words "the refuge" will always, to us, be synonymous with our stay there, and particularly with Sr Ramos and his wife and their hospitality and kindness to us.

Kenneth Mills. Totteridge, London. April 1964.