Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Way Home

Door to door, the AA route finder tells us, it takes about two hours from Kirkcudbright to our base in Maryport, Cumbria. But of course meandering around the coast took us much longer.  On the way we met some interesting characters.

First stop was the ruin of Dundrennan Abbey, where Mary, Queen of Scots is thought to have spent her last night on Scottish soil.   This has all the standard features of a Cistercian abbey, established in 1142.  What made our visit special was the custodian, a man who really loves his job. 

These two memorial stones would have been interesting to us, but we would not have noticed details such as the dagger in the abbot's chest here.

 Beneath his feet is an enemy, his guts spilling out.  We were advised to note that even he has a chance of redemption - he is clinging on to the abbot's foot.

After a stop at Rockwell, which boasts a sheltered beach, we drove on to Ruthwell.  And here we were astonished.  We knew that there was an Anglo-Saxon cross here, but we had no idea how impressive this would turn out to be.  Dating from the early eighth century, this cross has been reassembled from broken fragments in the churchyard.

It stands nine foot high, so high that a pit has been excavated in the church in order to accommodate it.

This is very fine work, quite unlike the Northumbrian crosses of Whithorn.  In the nineteenth century someone deciphered the runic inscription around the figures.  It is an extract from "The Dream of the Rood"  - "Rood" meaning "cross", a text which was on my university English course.

Down the sides are these vine scrolls with birds and beasts, the carving particularly crisp.  Perhaps those years protected from the weather also reduced the weathering of the carving.

So then, we expected the Savings Bank Museum to be an anti-climax - the name itself is underwhelming.  However, here we found a genuine enthusiast who explained the role played by the Reverend Henry Duncan in restoring the Ruthwell Cross, as well as in encouraging his parishioners to put aside small sums each week.  This cash was placed in a three lock box and taken to Dumfries, to be invested in an actual bank, by the trustrees, each of whom held a key.  Hence the Trustee Savings Bank, which is what this small scheme evolved into.  Duncan was a polymath, interesting hinself in dinosaur footprints unearthed in the local quarry, setting up a newspaper, bringing in corn to aid the poor and generally acting for the public good.  What would he have made of the recent goings-on in banking, I wonder?


Saturday, September 06, 2014


How about this?  I'm calling this new wip "Windfalls", as it's that time of year in our garden, with apples and pears spilling over.  But also the patterns here drop into your lap for free, from the great bounty that is Ravelry.

Basically, I am following the construction of the Summer Isles waistcoat which is proving to be a good fit.  The yarn here is a hand-dyed variegated wool called Pure Alchemy, from a company called Yarnsmith.  I bought it originally for a Swallowtail shawl, thinking it would be a good accent colour.  However, it is more than a bit loud as it stands.  The grey yarn - Charcoal on the label - had proved to be the wrong colour on an earlier project, but it is just the ticket here, where it reads as a dull olive against the orange and mutes it down.

So then, the stranded patterns.  After our visit to Whithorn my mind was running on celtic knotwork, which has meant lots of cabling before now. I do have Alice Starmore's wonderful book, but her charts are intended for many different yarns and would need some work to decipher the underlying pattern. But an advanced search on Ravelry -  Patterns Celtic stranded - threw up over a hundred colourwork options.  Adding the word "free" narrowed it to about fifteen.    Amazing.  One can nip up to the office in the back bedroom, set up this search, print off the charts and be knitting it up within minutes.  I never fail to be surprised and grateful for this resource.

The variegated orange/green falls randomly along this Celtic braid, but gives an almost 3D effect from a distance - certainly adds depth to the pattern.

This is again a pattern free to download, this time from  Patons - they seem to hve offered a kit of the yarns for a hat along with it.  This is a serious challenge to knit, as it's not symmetrical.  Using a ruler laid across it to keep track of the row certainly helped.

A Celtic Spiral design.  My fear was that it might fall over the bust - as my husband said, shades of Boudicca's breastplate.  In fact, it is moving up towards the shoulder.

This has been a surprisingly quick knit so far.  The ribbed back is in progress.  And I have some mid-blue Jaeger Matchmaker beckoning ....


Thursday, September 04, 2014


I was really pleased to hear from you, Julie and Mary Lou.  We enjoy exploring new areas, and they are almost always nooks and corners unlikely to feature on whistle stop tours where you are visiting the major sights of the country. We find our pleasure where we can.

We spent three nights in Kirkcudbright, surprised to find that there was lots to do here.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it gained a reputation as an artists' colony, a legacy which contributes to a great deal of civic pride. It carries its head pretty high.

Right in the centre of the town is a harbour on a tidal river.  Fishing vessels off-load here, and it's very much a working port still.

Also right in the centre is this huge ruined fortified town-house: McClellan's Castle.

A little shopping: the kind of shop where tea-aprons are on sale without any hint of irony, or the dreaded word "vintage".  These are working garments.  We topped up on socks for my husband from their wide range.  Had we wanted roomy underwear in sensible fabrics this would have been the place.

On then to the Stewartry - even now I am not clear what that means, but it is now a kind of local museum.  Outside were some of the cup and ring marked stones which abound in the area, evidence of ancient settlement.  Inside, one item which took my eye was a kind of silver stirrup designed to be hung from a belt, to hold a ball of wool as it was being knitted. 
Does this suggest that the knitter would have been multi-tasking, or was it more likely about keeping the drawing-room tidy?

The big exhibition on while we were there was of the work of the Glasgow Girls, and a fairly eclectic group of work it was too, spanning a period of about fifty years.

The afternoon saw us looking around the house of E. A. Hornell, whose very busy pictures of pretty young girls set against blizzards of blossom could hardly be less palatable to the modern eye.  The garden, though, was a different matter: beautiful and varied spaces.


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.