Saturday, April 29, 2017

Sheepy Books...

This last week I've enjoyed two quite different books set on sheep farms. Now, I reckon to know a bit about sheep-farming, since I spent my childhood on a farm on the edge of the Cumbrian fells with an ancestral flock and a grazing right.  But time passes, and it is all of fifty years since I left that farm.  A lot of change can happen in fifty years - and this is what these two books deal with - change and its impact on rural lives.

"Towards Mellbreak" by Marie-Elsa Bragg is a curious book, half novel, half prose poem.  What it is certainly is a tragedy, which deepens as the story goes on.  The book is set on Ard Farm, starting in 1971.  The writer moves between her characters, depicting an ancient way of life in which the turning of the year is marked by ancient traditions and by church attendance, more significant to some of the characters than to others.

Although this is a remote valley, the outside world is present to the characters. A brother has served as a missionary in China; his ancient letters are stored as treasures and gifted to chosen individuals. 

Soon the menfolk are discussing government initiatives, all of which are seen as ill-thought out and intrusive.  It becomes clear that no good will come of it. Sheep dip starts off benign and becomes a major player.  As the inevitable descent happens, so the pathos increases.

Quite different in tone is "Addlands" by Tom Bullough, a novel set in the ancient county of Radnorshire in the Welsh Marches.  This covers a seventy year period from 1941 onwards, the lifetime of the central character, born and raised on a sheep farm, although not conceived there.  One of the features of the book is the interrelatedness - everyone is your second cousin here.

This is a much more rollicking read, but with real depth to the local knowledge in the narrative.  The writer does not confine his use of dialect words to the dialogue - local words occur naturally in the narration.  Bullough's characters are not saints to whom awful things happen, they are people who make mulish choices, choices which have lasting consequences for them and others, but which they refuse to regret.

Change happens in Bullough's book too, but not always for the worse.  The passage on how the annual ordeal of hay-making was no loss was particularly telling.  But this is a comedy, so when the farmer decides to spare his mother the chore of washing at a wash-tub, he is too mean to buy the washing machine and ends up with a dish washer, because it was cheaper. She appears not to know the difference.

Bullough pulls no punches, and neither does his central character.  This is farming red in tooth and claw.  But he also does not flinch from the sex lives of his people, where humour replaces what could have been tragic. 

It was a great reading week.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017


A sense of deja vu?  This may look very similar to the last item I knitted, Nurmilintu, but it is a completely different pattern - similar but different.

I had half the Drops Alpaca left, so I looked for a new pattern.  This has the same basic shape of a long, thin triangle, and the same idea of alternating bands of garter stitch and lace.  The edge increases are done in a more sophisticated way here, producing a little rolled edge.

I also prefer the lace pattern here - it's more open and airy.  The final ten rows or so shift to a proper edging, so it blocked out better.

Now I am beguiled by a box of Shetland yarns.  In full sunlight, the blended colours really gleam.  Perhaps another waistcoat? 

Friday, April 21, 2017


The weather on our recent trip to Cumbria was not of the best: overcast and chilly, although rarely actually raining.

However, we managed some of our favourite walks.  This one starts near to the chapel at Wythop and winds round the base of Sale Fell, past the old stones of the ruined Wythop chapel in the woodlands, a favourite place to stop for lunch.

The path rises steeply to begin with, but soon levels out.

Now that the forestry people have cleared some of the dense coverage, there are spectacular views over Bassenthwaite.

Another day we lunched at the Pheasant and then walked up through Dodd woods to try to catch a glimpse of the ospreys from the vantage point across the valley from the nest.  This was not to be, but we did see this little fellow.  He looks bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but a closer look reveals that he has a bad case of mange on his back.  Let's hope it is not itchy.

A couple of birdy pictures; birdsong was very much in evidence.

A stone-chat displaying in the coastal scrubland.

And a yellow-hammer, catching the low evening sun.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Spring cruise

This Saturday, to London, to celebrate the thirtieth wedding anniversary of two of my oldest and dearest friends.

This took the form of an afternoon cruising on the Regents Canal, past moored barges and some seriously swanky gin palaces.

It was a bright, sunny April day.  Among the guests were a number of Australians, easy to spot because almost every one was wearing a woolly hat.  This was unexpected, but our friends explained that to the Australians it was actually winter.

At one point we traversed the zoo.  Here we have an enclosure of painted dogs, a species at risk of extinction in the wild.  We are fans of "The Secret Life of the Zoo", which featured a very small pack of these same dogs recently.  Watching them savage each other to establish a clear hierarchy of dominance even among the four of them was very instructive.

Meanwhile, on the barge, we caught up with long-lost friends, scanning each other's faces to recognise the familiar under the ravages of time.

The boat passed through Little Venice before turning and travelling to Camden Lock.  This involved passing through several dark and narrow tunnels.

On the way back, we were in one of these for some time, the barge making slower and slower progress.  Once out in the open, the steersman opened a hatch and used a boat-hook to prise layers of debris - bin-liners and discarded tights - off the propeller.  We made faster time after that.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Feathering the nest...

To Cumbria, for an early Easter break and a little further progress on the refurbishment of our front room.

It was a time of baby lambs, huge banks of gorse in bloom and lovely evening light before sunset.

We took with us a tiled hearth, constructed by my husband, and bought a small electric stove to stand on it.  We ordered carpet and waited for it to be fitted.  And we located a "new" gate-leg table to replace the frankly ancient one we inherited from my mother. 

This is a real find: a solid oak table with a lovely golden sheen to it.  We spotted it in the front window of an organisation run by Age UK called "Men in Sheds".  The notion of this is that they take in items for repair or updating, and it provides an activity for the older male.  I was amused to see a poster in the window advertising a "Women in Sheds" group, which is apparently well-attended.  West Cumbria has an unsophisticated line on gender diversity.

Our table has yet to be refinished - we did take some steel wool to a couple of minor cigarette burns on the surface, and there are some pale water marks.  But this was a bargain at £35.

Later, we made a trip to the Honister slate quarry, to pick over their spoil heap.  This has the notice "Fill ya boot - £20".  We were looking for some polished off-cuts for my husband to use in the fire surround he is planning for our front room.  We did not fill our boot, partly because some of these pieces must weigh a ton.

While there, I watched as a workman demonstrated riving slate with a chisel.

Notice how a crack has appeared.

And then the slate splits.

He was wearing steel toe-capped boots, probably wisely.