Monday, August 25, 2014


A few nights away, in Galloway.  For many years we have looked across the Solway Firth to the opposite shore, the Scottish shore.  Once we went as far as Dumfries and Sweetheart Abbey beyond on a daytrip.  Now we had booked three nights in Kirkcudbright, further into Galloway.

What did we expect?  I had rather feared it might be a mirror image of West Cumbria - sadly diminished communities with the industrial heart ripped out of them.  But I could not have been more wrong.

For a start, the shoreline.  On our side low sand dunes give way to endless open beaches where the views open up for miles.  Not so on the Scottish shore, which has rocky cliffs and small sheltered bays, ideal for fossicking in rockpools.

Then the towns.  We drove out from Kirkcudbright to Gatehouse of Fleet, Wigtown and Whithorn.  While the first of these was originally a planned town with a large cotton mill, the main impression now is of very wide streets lined with four-square, double-fronted Georgian houses.  In West Cumbria the main housing stock is of two bedroomed cottages, one room wide, pebble-dashed and sandstone edged.  Here the earlier single storey cottages have given way to more substantial town houses.

On this outing our first stop was Gatehouse of Fleet, where, right in the car-park, was a kilt-maker in her shop.  It was an auspicious start to the day.  On the counter she had a lady's kilt which she was making.  Eight metres of tartan, each pleat, incredibly, stitched by hand.  Also in train was a slim-waisted kilt for someone about to be best man at a wedding.  It was fascinating.  Of course, a bag of her off-cuts, sold for patchwork, somehow left with me, although tartan does not move me as tweed
often does.

After a brief stop at Wigtown with its many bookshops, we drove on to Whithorn where we had lunch.  Last year we heard of this place for the first time.  A team of archaeologists working on the vicus attached to the fort at Maryport had unearthed an early Christian burial ground.  One of the theories as to its location was that it lined up with the Isle of Whithorn, virtually in sight across the Solway.  We were intrigued to see what this might be.

Whithorn is a very ancient settlement.  In the fourth century St Ninian established a chapel here, where the Priory later stood.  But who knew that there was a whole school of cross carving here in the Northumbrian tradition?  I was astonished to see so many fine examples of celtic knotwork,
like the pages of the Bain handbooks brought to life.  I have knitted some of these myself.

So then, it was on to St Ninian's Cave:  a lovely woodland walk down to a windy cove where the sunlight glistened.  We found it magical, but it did not impress a couple of children nearby who declared it boring on the grounds that the cave did not feature pirates or treasure.

And, finally, on to the Isle of Whithorn where there is a harbour, a headland and a very moving memorial to the crew of a trawler, lost with all hands not that long ago. 

Out on this headland stand the remains of St Ninian's Chapel.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Summer Isles waistcoat.

At last the waistcoat is complete.  In fact, in the best crafters' tradition, it went right to the wire.  I actually set off to meet friends in London wearing the long-sleeved Tshirt, but with the front band of the waistcoat still to do.  Quite what the other passengers thought as I ran in the last ends and put on the item I will never know.

I am really pleased with how this turned out.  The Fair Isle pattern is from Sheila McGgegor's book of traditional patterns, but I made up the rest as I went along.

The blue yarn is a hand-dyed skein from Susan Heath, using a base yarn described as 4-ply from Sue Blacker.  But it must be a heavy 4-ply as the grey yarn is an acrylic Aran weight,  and the two knit together very well. 

I decided early on to have a plain ribbed back but this did not stop me trying several alternatives: the front pattern done as a texture with purl stitches, the grid from the front done as intarsia...  but in the end I stuck it out and used plain rib.  A seven-hour car trip helped.  Of course, rib and Fair Isle have quite different qualities, but it took me a longish while to realise that the number of stitches at the shoulder was going to be so different that I would need to reknit the fronts from the armhole, increasing the rate of decrease - or decreasing every third row.

I had tried a simple garter and rib edging, but had used the same needle size, so there was some fluting.  To resolve this I unpicked a row above the edging , picked up the stitches and knit the edging back out on a smaller needle.  This was definitely worth doing.  I had put a three stitch moss stitch band along the front edges, but this looked very feeble.  I decided to treat this as a kind of facing, and picked up stitches around the front edge to make the same sort of edge as the lower edge.  Around the armholes I used an applied i-cord, just to neaten and stabilise the edge.

In my button box I have some decorative Norwegian Pewter hooks and eyes, bought on holiday there in the early 1990s.  These should work on this project.

I did wonder about adding a tiny amount of an accent colour - acid green, perhaps - but in the end I was too timid.  I did learn a great deal from the project - or was reminded of things.  One of these is that heat and acrylic do not mix.  I did press the fronts using a damp cloth to settle the stitches, which worked well.  Pressing the shoulder seam with the iron catching the rib of the back resulted in my having to rip out a section and reknit it with new yarn to restore the texture.

So it might now be obvious why it took me so long to finish - but why do I want to cast on for another straight away?  I have this dark grey, like a deep olive green, and some variegated orange....

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Blue Streak...

One of the downsides of the second home is the double dose of diy and basic maintenance needed.  (I realise that this kind of thing is now referred to as "a first world problem")


This is the "After" picture - I didn't think to take a snap of the "Before" - but picture the sort of faded and peeling look much in vogue for furniture nowadays, and then some.

We last painted the back gate and yard in 2003, a year remarkable for even more hot, sunny days than this one. So it was now more than time for a new coat of paint.  We soon realised that the door of the shed needed more than cosmetic treatment. Once my husband put his mind to it, we very quickly had a brand new door, made from scratch. 

I, meanwhile, was rubbing down, applying primer, layering on undercoat...everything going smoothly, apart from an ache in my left hand from holding the paint tin.  I looked forward to putting on the final coat: exterior gloss in "Cobalt" - a particularly vibrant shade of blue.

 Outside the back gate there is a drying green, where our neighbours on that side can hang out their washing.  Just outside our gate is a wheelie bin, not belonging to us.  But it was just the right height for my paint tin - or so I thought.  One moment I am setting the full tin of cobalt on the lid of the bin, taking the first brushful and turning away; the next, I am standing in a puddle of blue, my left leg from ankle to knee drenched in blue.  How could this have happened? 

What does it tell you about me that I painted the whole of the outside of the gate using paint from the puddle before I attempted to clean the blue paint off myself?  In fact, the only casualties from this incident  were my training shoes, which were blue before and even bluer afterwards - but kinda stiff.  Brush cleaner removed most of the mess from my hiking trousers, leaving only a faint blue streak, like a kind of go faster stripe.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Reading Matter

So where can I be going, dressed up to the nines like this?

Perhaps this might be a clue...

That's Richard the Lionheart.  Or, what about this?

Or this?

This probably gives it away..

The Palace of Westminster, no less, where a friend of my husband from university days was holding a reception to mark her retirement as a career civil servant.  We had the full works: airport-style security checks on entrance, a guided tour of the central areas, during which we were able to spot well-known figures going about their business, then drinks and canapes in a room overlooking the Thames.

It was a very hot day and by the end of the evening my very modest sandals had turned into killer heels.

On a different note, I'm making some headway with this waistcoat, using a commercial Aran and a hand-dyed skein from Susan Heath.  I am using a chart from Sheila McGregor's boook of traditional designs and making up the rest as I go along.  It's clear that I would never make a designer.  I can never  properly visualise a design element until I see it knitted.  Here, for example, the lower edge needs to lose some stitches, and taking it off and knitting back the other way is easy enough to do.  But would it look better with a plain hem folded back, so the front started with the little chequer-board pattern?  It would look different certainly, and it might sort out the natural curl of the stocking stitch - but would it look better?

Then, what about the back?  I looked over my copy of the Sacha Kagan Sweater Book, and remembered how she used ribbed backs to waistcoats.  But would a ribbed back here marry with such an intricate front?  I'm toying with a self-coloured diamond pattern to echo the lattice of the fronts.  I guess I will just have to try a swatch and make the decision - either will probably be fine.

I recently read of someone who had set herself the challenge of rereading all of Dickens within a year.  For the recently retired, this is the sort of challenge that appeals. It's even more doable with a Kindle, where the whole of Dickens is available for free, or very like it.  The Kindle has other advantages too: it stays the same handy size no matter how long the book.  And the font size is surprisingly significant in making the text accessible.

Once, before I met my husband, I went to Venice  alone, with a copy of "Little Dorrit" for company. It was the ideal companion for train journeys and solitary evenings in the hotel room.  Its length was a huge part of its appeal.  Now, I have enjoyed "Dombey and Son", though probably less than "Bleak House".  A detour took me into "Tom All Alone's" by Lynn Shepherd - a curious concept that, basing your own detective story on Dickens' setting and characters, with a little Wilkie Collins and Jack the Ripper thrown in.  "Oliver Twist" raced along, and now I am well into "David Copperfield," a wonderful narrative voice. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Perfect Day

With good weather forecast we planned our last day in Cumbria - a perfect day in more ways than one.  We had been in negotiations with a local tradesman for some time with a view to having the guttering replaced on our little house, but we were not very hopeful that it would be fixed before we had to go south again.  It really needed doing before the winter storms resumed.

Our outing for the day started in the Newlands valley at a carpark near Little Town.  We walked along the valley bottom, then followed the gently rising path.  On the opposite side of the valley, clear evidence of ancient mine-workings, usually expoiting a rift in the geological strata.

One of these mines had yielded gold as well as lead and had been claimed by Elizabeth 1.   The story went that the landowner resisted her claim , and lost his head for his trouble.  Can this be true?
 As we went further up the valley so the mines continued.
We saw a number of tiny sheepfolds, each one surely the last in the valley, but then there was one even more remote still.
At the top of the pass we stopped for lunch, just by a sizeable tarn.  To access High Spy we needed to make a sharp turn to the left, but none of it was overfacing.  The ridge we were aiming for is a contiuation of the line starting at Cat Bells, probably the most walked mountain in the whole of the Lakes. Soon we were meeting guided parties, including a whole class of  very game twelve year olds from a school in Berkshire.  The small group on this rocky outcrop were older teenagers looking for a photo opportunity.
This is a summit cairn, but it alo reveals the level of erosion on the heavily frequented paths.

To appreciate this view properly one needs to have walked the fells on days where the weather is walkable but less enchanting; the sort of low cloud and grey drizzle which cuts out the longer perspective.  Here, even the little pond is summer blue.  My husband was amazed to see tadpoles, not only here but in little puddles on the path we had walked up.
We followed the path down to Maiden Moor and then, eventually, back to the valley bottom where we were able to relish afternoon tea at the Little Town farmhouse.  We drove back to our base, taking bets on the guttering: grey and it had not been done, black and the tradesman had turned up trumps.  We rounded the corner - and the guttering was black!  While we were out along the tops, he had got the job done.
And what might these be?  This is the start of a pair of socks from Nancy Bush's "Folk Knitting in Estonia", rather unfortunately named Tiit's Socks. ( I've spent too many years spent teaching 13 year old boys)  I'm livening up the pattern with a few random coloured spots.
Finally, the start of a waistcoat, using a pattern from Sheila Mcgregor's Fairisle book.    I'm hoping for a summery effect here, using a hand-dyed yarn with the plain pale grey.  We'll see.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Fancy Socks

I have managed a little knitting in between all the activities recently.  This is Hedera by Cookie A., published in Knitty some time ago - a free pattern.  The yarn is Regia Silk, a mix of merino, silk and polyamide, in a lovely soft green.  The lace pattern was a simple 4-row repeat, impossible to get wrong, but a  little fiddly on dpns.  They do look acceptably summery with cut-off trousers.  I was surprised when someone at my knitting group commented that they looked very youthful.  Perhaps she meant, too young for me.

Then, this little test piece.

This is a commercial Aran weight grey, with a hand-dyed wool yarn.  I am loving the effect of using variegated yarn in a stranded pattern.  It looks cool and summery.

So then, this is the same blue yarn, but knit with a Norfolk Horn dk.  Somehow the Norfolk Horn has a fawn colour to it, giving the whole thing a retro look.

This is Norfolk Horn from the Wimpole Hall flock, prepared by my friend at Natural Yarns and spun by Sue Blacker's company.

I've bought a ball of the 4-ply to try with the blue.  Somehow, though, I prefer the pale grey of the original sample.  I'm thinking of a little waistcoat with patterned fronts and a plain back.  I've been looking over some of the early work of Sacha Kagan which had some wonderful examples. 


Sunday, June 08, 2014

Churches and Castles

Thank you for the kind comment, Liz M!  I'm always amazed when people like the photos on my blog because, pre-digital camera, I was the person who could take a whole roll of film and not get one decent image.  For a longish while I just didn't bother.   Now, one can choose which images to use and crop out any distracting elements.

So, it was not all walking in the fells in Cumbria.  We took some rest days when rain was forecast, and appreciated the contrast.   

May was a great time to visit Muncaster Castle, which has a world-class collection of rhododendrons.  My family were tenants of the Muncaster estate when I was a teenager, so the whole area is very familiar to me.  My much younger sister remembers attending the Christmas party for the tenants' children, held every year at the castle.  Sounds very Downton Abbey, doesn't it?

We walked around the grounds and took a tour of the interior which is packed with interesting stories - an ancestor last seen grappling with a bear in India; an ancestor who took up with a young woman from Essex that he had met in a park and had two children by her - it's fascinating.

Housed in the grounds is an aviary of owls from around the world.  These have been rescued in different ways for conservation purposes. We enjoyed the exhibition of owls flying and being held.

However, we were most glad to have decided to stay for the herons.  I have always thought of herons as very special birds.  They seem so patient and dignified in their lonely vigils on the riverbank.  To see one fly over, its great wings unhurried and its body like the fuselage of an early aircraft, is always a memorable sight.  We have rarely seen more than one at a time, but we noticed that several had landed in a tree above the castle terrace.

Soon there were about fifteen herons perched and waiting.  At four o'clock a keeper from the aviary appeared with a bucket.  She reminded us that these were wild birds, disclaiming responsibility for their behaviour.  This was just as well.  Once she had tipped out the food, several alpha birds took up position, swallowing as many of the dead day-old chicks as they could and warding off all challengers.  Soon their crops were distended and very undignified squabbling broke out. It was an amazing spectacle.

Apparently they had had a pair reared in the aviary and had tried to move them out to the natural heronry on the estuary by feeding them away from their cages.  However, this had attracted in the wild birds who had a keen sense of timing.

A quieter time was had at Irton Church.  There is no village called Irton; it is the name of a parish of scattered farms and what were once country estates.  Almost fifty years ago my eldest cousin married there.  My elder sister and I were bridesmaids.  Some years later, that sister too held her wedding there.  So I have definitely been there twice before, although the building made little impression on me then.   However, the building and the views from the gate are truly impressive.   In the churchyard stands this amazing ninth century cross, with its celtic knotwork.

Inside the church, there are windows by Morris and Co, designed by Burne Jones. 

Cumbrian chuches usually tend towards the plain and simple, but here there is evidence of money.  At the end of the nineteenth century some of those with interests in the industry of West Cumbria - the ship-building and the coal and iron ore mines - obviously bought country houses here and had wealth to spare to support the church.

A different story attaches to this last church visited.  After Boot, we moved north to our own cottage.  From here we visited Abbey Town and the church of Holm Cultram.  This is the remains of a twelfth century abbey which once wielded enormous influence.  We were fascinated to see it open again, because in 2008 a group of youths set it on fire.  In fact, they broke in looking for cash and stole five pounds, which they spent on drink.  Returning to the abbey, they set alight some clothing in the vestry and soon the whole building was ablaze.  Now, after several million has been spent, the wooden roof has been restored and a white limestone floor installed.  The ladies we spoke to were just grateful to be able to have their services there again, even though much remains to be completed.