Sunday, November 29, 2015


I live within easy travelling distance of London.  Those of you out in the tundra, or elsewhere, may think this would mean that one would be up to date with all the latest shows, shopping and exhibitions.  But no - I am Katie Countrymouse.

However, within the last fortnight I've been into London three times, meeting friends and family and taking in a number of exhibitions.

First, the Celts, at the British Museum.  Now, I have a passion for so-called Celtic design: interlaced knotwork of various kinds, and grotesque animals - Ive knitted plenty of it, one way and another.   I expected to be amazed.  And, curiously, the gift-shop was pretty amazing.  The exhibition, less so.

I think this may have been because the definition of "Celt" seemed to cover everyone in Europe who was not Roman, and for hundreds of years.  So - lots of ceremonial buckets and brooches from all over the place, three very impressive crosses and an astounding cauldron.  The soundtrack to the exhibition was provided by a film loop of eerily slow-motion vignettes from a contemporary Celtic gathering: sword-dancing, folk-dancing and costumes.   At least there was space in which to look and ponder.

Not so at the Goya exhibition at the National Gallery.  My friend and I arrived towards lunchtime - exactly the time for which half of Europe had also booked their timed tickets.  There were at least seventy portraits by Goya , from every phase of his career, running through the days of the old aristocracy, Napoleonic occupation, the Peninsular War and beyond into France.  Almost all of the pictures were of a single individual, gazing out at us through time, their dress and accoutrements suggesting their status and preoccupations.  Goya certainly gave no quarter on beaky noses, broken veins, heavy eyebrows and more than a suggestion of moustaches, even where expensive lace mantillas were deployed.

But the crowds!  Each room was already eight deep when we entered it, so we had to duck and dive to even see the paintings.  The smaller rooms were seriously clogged with people.  Why do they allocate so many tickets to each time-slot?  Can it really be simply a question of profit to be made?

We retreated to the National Café where we enjoyed a very civilised lunch.

My third visit was to the Portrait Gallery where we ate in the Portrait Restaurant, a remarkable venue with extensive views.  We moved on to the collections of portraits thematically linked by Simon Schama in his tv series.  No problem with over-crowding and over-heating here.  I'd really recommend it.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Festival People...

To Cumbria this last weekend, for a literary festival based at the Roman Museum in Maryport.  We'd had this booked for months, not anticipating the apocalyptic weather on its way for the North. - Very high winds from Storm Abigail, followed by torrential rain, then - yes - more high wind.

Arriving by train on Wednesday, we picked up a hire car in Carlisle and drove south.  The wind was already picking up, but rain was only forecast for later on Thursday, so we made a brisk start.

 Out on the High Nook Tarn path above Loweswater, we found clusters of walkers making the most of a fine day after a rainy week - fine, but roaring with wind.  My Newfoundland Mittens were no match for these gusts, which simply blew straight through them.  The heretical word "Thinsulate" kept whispering in my ear.

 The trees in the lakeside woodlands still held on to enough of their leaves to light up our return: damp copper and gold.

Friday found me taking my seat in a writers' workshop led by Kathleen Jones.  Immediately, it was obvious that the other participants were veterans, knocking out complete, well-crafted short stories and poems on demand.  Long experience of writing model answers for teenagers proved of no help here.  Outside, "wind wielded bladelight", as Ted Hughes has it - the Roman Museum is right up on top of the hill, exposed to the elements.

The workshop over, we drove up the coast, past signs warning that the road was closed ahead.  This would be Dubmill Point, where at high tide the spray lifts pebbles from the beach and pelts the road -and any passing traffic -  with them.  We detoured inland, to one of our favourite teashops at Mawbray.

The evening brought with it a presentation by Melvyn Bragg, on his book "Now Is The Time", a novel set at the time of the Peasants' Revolt.  He entered the room and immediately sat down in the audience to chat to friends.  Wearing a black corduroy suit and a shirt with cuff-links, he was, something you don't see every day in Maryport -  or Essex, for that matter.  Once launched on his subject, he gave his characters considerably more life than they appear to have in the book, so far as I have read it.  Joan, the Maid of Kent, mother of Richard the Second, was what might be called a bit of a goer - certainly worth Googling if you have never heard of her.   Outside, the wind continued to roar; as Melvyn remarked, it felt like being on a ship with the added comfort of knowing that we were not at sea.

Saturday was due to be very wet later.  In fact, eight inches of rain were forecast to fall within twenty-four hours.  Flood warnings had been issued for local towns; serious weather.  We took an early bracing walk up the beach from Wolsty Banks, then headed inland to lunch at the Pheasant Inn, a snug retreat on such a dismal day.  Roast guinea fowl - delicious!

 More on the Festival later - this was my first ever experience of such an event but, hopefully, not my last.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


So...  Thank you for the kind wishes on my birthday.

This is where I've got to with the pullover front, using those autumnal Shetland yarns which came into my hands recently. I was using as my model a long-line Fair Isle pullover by Lesley Stanfield, in a wonderful collection of glowing russets and browns.  Of course, I was choosing my own patterns from Sheila McGregor, and using the yarns I had in hand.

 The thing is, I'm not reading this as autumn.  Looks more like spring to me - that bright, daffodil yellow, lit by the white background colour.  Where I'd thought to put a single line of scarlet, as in, sprays of berries, it looks more like the centres of narcissi.  But I don't absolutely dislike it.  If winter comes, can spring be far behind? as someone wrote.  So, should I continue in this vein or rip it out and go for a darker, richer palette?

Menwhile, the reliable outcomes of two colours of acrylic and a band of pattern. I'm approaching forty of these now.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

One misty, moisty morning...

It's my birthday today: the one where you have to ask whether you will still be needed or even still fed...  Some years ago I was at the Chelmsford Music Festival, after a week at work where I had begun to feel that I was an oldie.  Queuing for the Ladies at the event, I noticed that I was the youngest by some margin, and that there was a thirty year age range represented.  So, age is to some extent relative - or so I tell myself.

After a journey making the duty visit to the Cotswolds, we rewarded ourselves with lunch at Compton Verney, which was certainly looking its best in the sunshine.

This is the stable block, now some rather swish apartments

An art installation called "First Encounter".

Another called "Kern Baby".

We ate lunch then tackled the three hour drive home.

This morning I was determined to treat the mist as something that would burn off as the day went on.  We loaded the bikes on the train to Manningtree and cycled to the village of Tattingstone and Alton Water.  We were surprised to see so many sweet chestnuts spilling out over roads and paths.

Once there, we followed the cycle path around the reservoir.  This is not my favourite kind of cycling as it demands some concentration to avoid rough patches and mud, let alone tree roots.

Eventually we emerged at Holbrook where fortunately, we found a pub doing Sunday lunch.  The fog thickened as we ate, so we rode back to the station through the murk.

Some of you have noted that the yarns I have prepared match the foliage in the pictures.  This is not exactly coincidental.  The batch of spools also included a number with a Christmassy look to them, but I have left them on the spools.  I am hoping to make use of these browns, mustards and yellows in a pullover.  In fact, I have added a couple of new balls - FC 38 and 122 - in rusty colours.  It proved cheaper to order these from Meadow Yarns than from Lerwick, and the service was very prompt.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Walk in the Woods...

Sunday was another of those lovely October days: bright sunshine, but quite a nip in the air.  We decided on a longer walk which entailed placing a car out at the far end, so that we could walk out through the woods, across country, to get there.

Everywhere the autumn colours were at their best: sharp acid greens and yellows.  Trees were just hanging on to their foliage.

This group lined the other side of the A120.  We had plenty of time to admire it as we waited for a gap in the traffic to be able to cross.  You certainly take your life in your hands each time.  We both remember the time before the by-pass when the through road did just that - ran through our village, with its mediaeval centre.  Of course, the volume of traffic has increased since then, but even then juggernauts would shudder to a halt on the narrow sections.

We headed north, up country lanes and off the beaten track.  In fact, most of the walk was along woodland roads, deep in mud, and shaded by trees.  We had to pick our way through.

We were soon in deeply rural surroundings.  In the woods we were more aware of the movement of deer than of people.   We spotted a small Muntjac and, later, an antlered stag with a small herd on the move.  

Eventually, we emerged at Greenstead Green, where there is farm-shop and café.  We sat out in the sunshine for our tea.

 These are all balls of Shetland yarn acquired in my recent haul.  Washed and rewound, they are ready to knit.  I'm thinking of a Fair Isle pullover, with repeating narrow and wide bands.  I'll start with the front, and perhaps make a plain ribbed back. 

And this, it turned out, was not jumper weight, but lace-weight.  There is an ounce here, and it is beautiful yarn.  What will it be used for, I wonder?

Friday, October 23, 2015

Processing Yarn

Last Saturday I went to the meeting of the Weavers', Spinners' and Dyers' Guild where I have been a member for some years.  As sometimes happens, an elderly member had passed away recently and some of her stash was on the Sales Table.  Very revealing this process, as for some bereaved sons and daughters discovering just how much yarn their mother had stored in the house is a real shock.  "Sable" stands for "Stash enhanced beyond life expectancy": for many of us this is not a joke.

In this case, the stash could not have been more orderly: carrier bags of cones of yarn, apparently acquired from Texere.  Some of it must have been for warping on an industrial scale.  My eye was caught by these tightly wound spools of yarn, some with the letters "SH"pencilled on them.  I gathered them and made the customary donation to guild funds.

Knitting a little swatch, then washing it, proved that these were spools of Shetland yarn, oiled for machine knitting in a mill.  Once washed, the yarn bloomed.

Selecting only the tweedy colours, I knitted up a bigger test strip, revealing that a couple were finer or thicker than the norm.  Some were not blended Shetland, but a tweed type with a separate tweedy thread.

I began the process of winding off yarn on to this handy piece of kit, turned for me some years ago by my husband.  This is a niddy-noddy.  Converting the spools into skeins makes it possible to wash the yarn, to remove the oil.

 Before washing, the yarn looks like string and smells like an old engine.

After washing and drying the yarn bulks up, acquiring loft.  The blended colours become visible again.  It's a magical transformation.

Of course, the skein then needs to be wound into a ball again to be ready to use.  It's a labour-intensive process.  I know that electric ball-winders can be bought, but I don't do this often enough to make it worthwhile getting one.

I'm considering all the time how I might use this yarn.  Each skein seems to be about 50gms, so there are useful quantities.  Perhaps a Fair Isle pullover? 

I often think of how part of my patter, when giving a brief history of the wool trade to visitors at Paycocke's House, is about how the clothier did not engage in the processes of yarn production himself; this was all done by out-workers in their own cottages.  Ironically, here I am, all those centuries later, reversing the processes on factory produced yarn.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


A little knitting.  These are for my November shipment to Pine Ridge.  Soon, I can see a window opening, and perhaps the motivation to cast on for something other than Gidday Baby.  Several of the people at my knitting group have knitted it now too, so it is clearly infectious.
On Tuesday, I worked all morning tutoring students.  I've got out of the habit of rising at dawn and tackling the rush hour traffic.  How I did it all those years is beyond me.
Emerging into the lovely autumn day, I persuaded my husband of the need for exercise and fresh air.  Just north of us is the arboretum at Mark's Hall, a really useful amenity.  A little October colour was just what was needed.

The arboretum has lakes, created by damming a stream in the valley.

 Birches shimmering in the sunlight, their tiny leaves catching the light.

 Many of the trees have been chosen specifically because of their foliage at this time of year.  They certainly gladden my heart.