Kyloe woods

Last October a small article in our local paper (the Berwick Advertiser) about nearby Kyloe Camp caught my eye. An Iron Age promontory fort nearby – hmm – that sounds worth exploring …So explore it we did – we’ve been three times now, and we will go again and again because it is a beautiful and fascinating place.

Our first trip was in November last year. A beautiful crisp day.  We weren’t initially sure how to approach this walk – after all Kyloe Woods is quite a large plantation – nor were we at all sure of what we were going to find, apart from – hopefully – Kyloe Camp on the promontory.

We found much much more than we expected – and many paths in and around the woods. But the Kyloe Woods are privately owned by Scottish Woodlands, and not all paths are open to the general public …This is the entrance on the western side of Kyloe Woods and the signage makes ownership and access clear. Scottish Woodlands have large machinery operating here at times and are understandably anxious not to find walkers ambling round in their way …So we settled on approaching from the north-east, following part of the route of St Cuthbert’s way. We parked near Fenwick Wood and headed down the the way-marked route …Walking along the initial approaches to Kyloe woods last November, we noticed the markings on the trees growing out of the old wall …When we walked there earlier in the week, Scottish Woodlands gave us clear warning …… they had been working on those marked trees …Leaving the old stone wall clearly exposed …All credit to Scottish Woodlands who made the muddy route very clear once we entered the woods … And indeed it was very very muddy amid the evidence of heavy machinery working …As I followed Stephen up and on into the forest …But it pretty soon became exciting as we met the Leylandii, massive in their natural habitat …Followed by enormous firs …Entered dense bowers …The path carpeted with beech leaves …Then the trees began to open out …The signage continued to be very good – very clear and very welcoming …Then we caught a first glimpse of Bogle Houses …Bogle Houses sits on the roadway crossing the woods. They are so named after the local bogeyman …But all boarded up now they are really more sad than haunted …Our track continued over the road …Up the hill …Lots of little seedling trees in the undergrowth …And the trees were getting taller and taller …Or else Stephen was shrinking …Suddenly we noticed the monkey puzzle trees …Then they were all around us …And it was terribly exciting – this is so far from what we expected from today’s walk …Turning round, we got our first glimpse of the sea through the monkey puzzles …We were in a bracken clearing …But – we hadn’t reached the top yet. Ahead of us the path stretched on to a little gate (which we explored later) …And above us – through the bracken – was the fort – presumably …It’s very hard to show the fort in photographs from ground level amid bracken, but you perhaps can get some idea here of the ramparts lying under that bracken …

The curious thing about the site of the fort is that it has been divided – part of it lies in Kyloe Woods, and part of it in the farmer’s fields through the little gate. So back to that little gate …Passing through it and looking back at the wall running through the promontory … And – stepping further away …We explored the mound – nothing obvious for us to see …But the views would have been commanding, both out to sea …And over the land up to Scotland …Back inside Kyloe Woods there was still plenty to explore – up the hill we went only to find something else we hadn’t expected at all – the top of the hill stops abruptly with the steepest of steep drops. Way, way down there is the road running through the woods …On our December trip to the woods, we walked along this road ourselves so I can show you the view of the cliffs from the bottom …This rock formation is known as a cuesta“a hill  or ridge with a gentle slope on one side, and a steep slope on the other”.  And there are other examples of it around Kyloe Camp. These cliffs are where the great North-eastern Whin Sill is intrusive into the Fell Sandstones of the locality …What we were later to learn through internet research is that certain cliffs in Kyloe Woods are renowned for their bouldering challenge …

But we were still a-top on our walk, enjoying the views right over to Lindisfarne … Picknicking …And the Araucarias! They are more commonly known as Monkey Puzzle Trees, and are native to many other parts of the world but not Northumberland. However, they do like exposed situations, and here, at the top of the Kyloe Hills, must be perfect for them. Apparently, there are well over 100 of them growing here.

We sat in a sort of ring of Araucarias as they crown and surround the top of the iron age hill fort of Kyloe Camp.  A most surreal combination of geographies and histories …They are such beautiful trees – those long curving branches (very prickly!) …With their beautiful bright green tips and rosettes …This is our favourite tree on the site. From its collapsed trunk  has grown the most elegant of shapes …Finally time to leave, a little sadly perhaps – but, my goodness, the trees were as magnificent on descent as when we walked up through them …Back home to research this extraordinary plantation. Apparently these trees were planted by Christopher John Leyland of nearby Haggerston Castle in the early twentieth century …Christopher Leyland (formerly Naylor) inherited the estate of Haggerston from his uncle in 1891 and with great enthusiasm (and huge expense) rebuilt the estate, establishing fabulous buildings, gardens – and a small zoo!

He was an enthusiastic silviculturist, and had brought with him from his family home of Leighton Hall in Powys several small seedlings – one of which he named Haggerston Grey. And it is this seedling, later renamed Cupressus x leylandii (but commonly known now as Leylandii) that he nurtured and planted abundantly on his Kyloe hill estate – along with grand firs, sequoias and araucarias. What vision!

In recent years Leylandii have acquired a bad name for themselves – but this is because they have been planted in wildly unsuitable urban locations, giving no room for this fast-growing tree to expand as it requires …In the spacious surroundings of the Kyloe hills, it is a beautiful happy tree … Christopher Leyland died in 1926 and the Haggerston Castle estate was sold by Leyland’s son in 1931…The castle grounds are now Haggerston Castle Holiday Park . Leyland’s water tower and rotunda (both grade II listed) remain to remind us of the magnificence that once was Haggerston Castle …But I suspect Christopher Leyland would be happier to think his memorial was in the glories of nearby Kyloe Woods …

The gift of a book …

I have been thinking about Christmas presents – not really surprising given where we are in the year. But this married up with the annual attempt to clear out some books from our shelves – and resulted in this nice little unassuming discovery …The rather shabby Mr. Ingleside by E.V. Lucas – perhaps not a writer you’ve heard of? Neither had I, but I was curious so I  read it –  and found it unremarkable. In a nutshell – it’s the story of a man with two daughters and the girls’ search for employment.

What made it special to me was the inscription inside: my grandfather Vin had given this book to my grandmother for Christmas 1926.

Vin died in 1933, aged only 36. He had never recovered from the amoebic dysentery he’d fallen victim to when serving with the ANZAC troops in Palestine during WW1. As a family we know so very little about him now both his sons have died, so every small nugget of information is deeply precious … Christmas 1926 – my father was born in March that year, and my Australian grandparents, Vin and Dora, spent Christmas at the family holiday house, Uringah, at Cowes on Phillip Island near Melbourne …That’s my grandmother’s handwriting in the photograph album above, and it’s my grandfather’s in Mr. Ingleside. Why did he choose to give her that book, I wonder? It was published in 1910 so it wasn’t new.  Did he wish to make a point – that she’d found her profession with motherhood?

What’s even more intriguing to me as his granddaughter is that he’s inscribed the book to Dordy, not Dora – but Dordy was what we grandchildren were instructed to call her! It makes me wonder if she spent her whole life missing him …

So, this find led me on to thinking about Christmas (and birthday) presents in general and how very much the culture of giving has changed. In the old days – when I was a little girl (and way back from there when my parents and grandparents were young) – Christmas and birthdays meant the gift of a book. No, I didn’t say “books”, I said “book”. Because so special was this book in a world where there wasn’t much “stuff” that it felt like the most special gift in the world. And because this gift of a book was so very special, it deserved a very special inscription.

Dora – when much younger (aged just 18) – was given music for Christmas 1917: Chopin’s Nocturnes. Purchased from Allan’s at Collins St in Melbourne …This copy has been much played (by me as well as her). These are her pencil marks. There is an indefinable connection in playing from sheet music that you know your grandmother once played …The inscription in my copy of  Pepita by Vita Sackville-West also tells a story from my grandmother’s life …This was a gift to her for her birthday from her good Australian friend Kate Wight in 1937. Kate had featured in my grandmother’s photograph albums of the 1920s. Here she is (on the right) with her sister Peggy in their father’s garden at Kyabram in Victoria … By 1937 Vin had died and Dora had moved to England and re-married …In fact, 1937 was the same year that Dora married her second husband Roger at Chislehurst church in Kent – and there is Kate in the centre of this picture of wedding guests. Did she come to England specially for the wedding, I wonder …Gifted books in my other grandmother’s family also raise questions. My other grandmother Doris was given A Day in a Child’s Life by her father Otto in 1900 – she was 5 years old …It’s a really exquisite book with enchanting illustrations by Kate Greenaway – actually so special that it’s in very good condition and looks like it’s never been read – or played … Did she perhaps not like it very much? Far more likely, I think, is the possibility that it was considered so very special that she was barely ever allowed to look at it. Certainly I never handled it as a child.

She’s the one of the left below, perhaps 2 years old here  …?By contrast with A Day in a Child’s Life, Baby’s Opera has been very much handled, and is really in tatters! There’s no inscription of it being a gift to her inside. Is that perhaps what gave license for this book to be used more frequently?! Marvellous illustrations, this time by Walter Crane …The inscription is from her to her grandson James (my son – and her first great-grandchild) for his first birthday, 25th December 1981 …These little nuggets of inscriptions make me wonder so much about the people involved. This book, John Hullah’s The History of Modern Music , published in 1862 Was a gift to my great-grandmother Mathilda Rose Herschel from her mother on her 19th birthday, 15th July 1865. Quite a dense learned book …Rose was certainly an accomplished musician. In later life the family lived near Cofton in Devon. They were regulars at the tiny church there and she played the organ for services. It’s lovely to have discovered that music with her name on it is still kept at Cofton church …As a family we don’t remember Rose so much as a musician as an artist. She painted prolifically – this (unfortunately photographed through glass) is her son, my grandfather, perched on the stairs, perhaps aged 3 or 4 …?1934 was a good Christmas for my 10-year old mother Mary shown here about that age (looking rather fed up) with her younger sister Jill on the left …She was given two books! She must have loved The Book of the Heavens, because it is sadly coming apart …It was a present from her parents. I wonder if she was given this charming little bookplate for Christmas that year too? It’s clearly written in a childish hand – and been written out once – unsatisfactorily, one presumes – and erased and written again …By contrast, Mrs. Lang’s The Book of Saints and Heroes, is a lot less thumbed. Perhaps a little worthy … A present from her grandmother Grace – not her grandfather Otto. This is clearly a family that gave presents separately. Perhaps they couldn’t decide on what to give …?My parents Dick and Mary continued the tradition of marking birthdays and Christmas with an inscribed book. I was given Lavender’s Blue for my third birthday – and it’s been well-used!My mother’s handwriting of the inscription is sadly smudged …Charming pictures throughout … But the book is in absolute tatters …And has been lavishly (and not very well) coloured in …I’ve even stuck pictures in to the back. Perhaps this indicates a passionate love for this book – but no, I don’t think that’s true. It’s just a good friend that travelled with me and met overfamiliarity …I do look a bit of a wild child …When we were older, my father Dick loved to give us Folio Society books – most of which, I am afraid to admit, I have never read – and they have vanished from my shelves. But one hasn’t …Poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins, a Christmas present from my parents Dick and Mary in 1974 is a book I really treasure …Several years later they gave me Mary Gostelow’s Embroidery …I asked for this book for Christmas. In those days you waited for books and clothes that you wanted – you couldn’t buy cheap second hand on Ebay nor did you have the disposable cash to go out and buy what you desired immediately. You waited. And this book was worth the wait – lots of lovely inspirational illustrations …There are other books on our shelves not connected to my family but which also were at one time given as Christmas gifts. I really like Needlecraft from Elizabeth Craig’s Household LibraryWhich was given: To My Darling Alice, Christmas 1952. But did Alice ever use it? I like to think it was a gift from her husband but it may have been from a parent. Whatever there’s no evidence that she actually liked it because the book is as pristine as a book published in 1950 could be …All that wonderful useful information gone to waste!By contrast, Continental Knitting by Esther Bondesen has been well used …And rightly so – so much of delight therein. Who wouldn’t want to make an ear-warmer like this …?!It was a present from Gwyneth to her grandmother for Christmas 1953. Lucky grandmother is all I can say! (And lucky me because it only cost me £1.50) …And while I’m on the subject of craft books, this treasure of a book, Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them by Ruth E. Finley … Has a cracker of an inscription on the flyleaf! I don’t know who Katherine Matthew and Alice Ogle were, but I’m hoping that Katherine considered Alice as good a friend. Perhaps she even gave a book back – hmmm, I wonder if it was a crafting book …It’s a lovely book …Then there are books that were given as prizes …

I’m back with my Australian grandmother Dora now. She was given these two fine volumes on the English National Gallery to mark that she had been head girl at Merton Hall, Melbourne Girls Grammar School ...She started at the school when she was 16 in 1915, and I’m guessing this photograph must have been taken about that time …It is such a fascinating reflection on Anglophile and Anglocentric Melbourne that she was given these books on the English National Gallery despite the fact that Victoria had its own National Gallery from 1861 … My English grandfather Percival won the most distinguished prizes. This beautifully bound copy of Smith’s A Smaller Dictionary of the Bible (small it may be but it’s a really great reference book for obscure biblical names and places) … Was awarded to my grandfather in 1908 as the Toplady Memorial Prize for Divinity. It would be quite intriguing to read what my grandfather wrote to win such a prize …Another award book that has found its way to my shelves once belonged to my father Dick …He was given Van Loon’s The Arts of Mankind for the holiday task he completed in 1938 …To be perfectly honest, it’s not the most interesting of books – a bit out-of-date and old-fashioned. But it remains on our shelves because it brings to mind this young man on the left, shown here with his mother Dora and younger brother Bill (not yet in long trousers) and I wonder if this photograph is a glimpse of the end of the holiday in which he did that work …Not all book prizes in our collection were awarded to members of my family. I found this copy of The Faber Book of Modern Verse in a second hand bookshop some time ago and it is kept in the car in a rather small glove pocket (for those dreadful times when you are stuck in a traffic jam and there is no mobile coverage). It is in woefully poor condition, but a book I am very fond of …I hope the poor condition wouldn’t offend the one-time owner, Tim Bliss. who was runner-up for the Gonner Prize for Literature awarded by Dean Close School sometime in the 1950s. If you check out his Wikipedia page to read about this distinguished neuroscientist, you may be able to guess why this book went on the pile of books to go to the local charity shop …Perhaps the most intriguing of our books are those where we cannot identify the donor. The Fireside Book of Folk Songs is just such a book …On the flyleaf, my mother has written below her name and the date the intriguing initials R.H.D …Some years ago she very helpfully wrote her memoirs and I know from those that she went to Moscow in 1948 for a couple of years as PA to the Economist’s Foreign Editor. Her brother John was working at the British Embassy there then, so she had an interesting and most enjoyable time mixing with fellow expatriates and exploring Moscow.

But nowhere in her memoirs does she identify anybody with the initals R.H.D. A mystery!

It’s a lovely book, with beautiful illustrations …And a wonderful – and eclectic – range of of music. I really treasure it …I forget where Stephen picked up this copy of Ancient Collects and Other Prayers. Good value for 3/6! It once belonged to C. Honora Blandford and rather coyly she notes it was given From a Friend on the 9th June 1870. Is one to understand that A.E.B. are the friend’s initials, or are they some other subtle allusion? I don’t know, but it remains very intriguing all the same … Perhaps I will solve these mysteries one day. I was certainly thrilled to be able to place the story behind my little Book of Psalms …It had two helpful clues – the name on the flyleaf …And the purple permission stamp for the prisoner-of-war camp at Bad Colberg in Saxony …You can read what I discovered about the provenance of this little book here

And then there are husbands!

Jane Grigson’s Fish Cookery has been a well-thumbed guide to my cooking life since 1981 …And the inscription really speaks for itself …And yes, he did go and change the nappy!Charles Williams’ Taliessin Through Logres is a rather obscure and dated poetry epic. I think – were I to be truthful – that this book would have gone to a charity shop were it not for the inscription …Way back in my university days …I made a friend who was then with another lady but is now my husband …Still Shining On – but now together! Christmas 2020 update: I was given four beautiful books. No inscriptions, and somehow I don’t miss them. Which is a pity because how will future generations be able to tell the stories behind them as I have done here … ?!

Felt Christmas tree decorations

Of recent years, I’ve enjoyed making little felted treasures to adorn my Christmas tree – and sending them out to family and friends for their Christmas trees too. It started with a class I attended with the very talented Lorna of Stitchbirdie in West Kilbride. She taught me how to make felted paisley botehs …So that year I made a bowlful and sent them off to friends and family for Christmas …The year after that I made felted stars (and wrote about them here)Then last year, come Advent-tide,  I found myself stitching little felt hearts …This year I decided to stitch felt Christmas trees …As a couple of friends have expressed interest in how I make these trees, this blogpost explains my method.

I started with a Christmas tree template. Here it is on an A4 background to give an idea of the size of my felted Christmas trees (hopefully this image can just be printed out) …I converted my paper template into card and then used that to trace and cut out the felt trees …There was a very loveable impediment when I found Eggy comfortably ensconced in my box of felt …But once you have moved your Eggy and cut out your felt Christmas trees …… the fun thing is to plan what to put on them! I got out all sorts of treasures from my stores – beads, threads, glitter, sequins …… and fabrics! These fabrics are all selected for the tinyness of the details printed on them. I can cut these details out and appliqué them onto the felt trees – like these Day of the Dead images (perhaps a bit surprising on a Christmas tree, but this one is for my daughter who loves that Mexican festival) …I also cut out a lot of flowers from the Japanese cherry blossom fabric – they convey a wonderfully fragile beauty to the little trees they decorate …Old plastic stencils come in handy …… for cutting out little multi-coloured felt circles – so very effective when stitched on with some contrasting floss …With all my goodies assembled, I began to play …Finally having worked out how I was going to make my little trees, I settled in to stitch cosily  – until the cats made it rather difficult, taking over the sofa …Then I heard from an Instagram friend of mine, Janine, that her niece, Kimmy, had been inspired by my pictures to make her own felt tree – this time decorated with buttons! Such an excellent idea, Kimmy – I hadn’t thought of buttons! So I went back to the drawing board – or more accurately –  my mother’s treasured and battered old button tin …And emptied the contents out … what treasure, but alas, mostly rather large …Nevermind, I managed to find enough small buttons to have a productive play. (All of which had to be done discreetly as my husband suffers from koumpounophobia) So, the felt trees are cut, the decorations sorted, here’s the procedure …First I stitched the pinned fabric and felt decorations in place using two strands of DMC floss …Then I added the buttons. This is tricky enough because you can’t easily pin them, but definitely not helped when Ilsa comes to sit near you … I joined the decorations together with a sparkly chain stitch to simulate the string of Christmas lights festooning our proper trees … And then I added some sequins – a bit OTT, I know, but I do love to pack the decorations on my real and felt Christmas trees …When they’re stitched in place (like the buttons a bit tricky as you can’t pin them), it’s time to stitch the plain back (no decorations on the back!) to the front with blanket stitch …Blanket stitch right round the tree, remembering to stich the rbbon tag in place at the top as you go along …When you have stitched all the way round except at the bottom of the stump …… it’s time to stuff your felt trees. I used sheep fleece (but any  toy stuffing would do) …I don’t stuff the trees very hard because I like them soft and a bit squidgy. Time to blanket stitch around the stump, and you’re finished …The really fun thing is that I can make each one completely different, designing them with the recipient in mind. This blue-flowered one was done for my mother because she is nuts about the colour blue …I love it when I have a bowl or pin -wheel full of variegated little felties – all ready to go off in the post to their new homes. Why there are some cat and daruma ones there too! Happy Christmas everyone!(If you want to make a felted Christmas tree, I hope you find all the info you require here. If not, please do get in touch with me.)

Stitching a yukata

When my mother moved to a nursing home several years ago, she gave me lots of her sewing treasures. Among them was this rather insignificant bolt of fabric …Of course, it isn’t insignificant at all! – it’s a Japanese cotton yukata fabric which I think she probably bought when we were living in Tokyo in the 1960s. There are some pictures in her photo albums of a visit to a yukata dyeing factory so I wonder if that is where and when she got it …?And when you spread it out a bit, you realise how lovely the patterning is …I’ve treasured this fabric so long – got it out regularly, stroked it – and put it away again. Too precious to use …

But, a month or so ago, I decided the time had come to make myself a yukata from it – especially as I had a lovely old Folkwear pattern to guide me …Yukatas have been a bit of a family tradition in my family, and we all have worn them/still wear them as outer night wear. 

I was born in Tokyo in the 1950s, a time when Western influence was not quite all-pervasive. The lovely ladies who looked after me (Takagi-san on the left and Mitsuko-san on the right) always wore kimonos and yukatas so that’s what I grew up with …The earliest photo of me wearing a yukata is when I was about 18 months old. I don’t look very happy but then my parents had put me in for a children’s fancy dress competition as we sailed back to England on board the RMS Carthage …In the next few years the family expanded, and of course there were yukatas for all us children …My father’s work took him to and fro Japan, so we found ourselves living in Tokyo again in the 1960s. To escape the summer heat, we would move for several weeks to a little holiday house in the cooler north on the shore of Lake Chuzenji (leaving my father behind in hot, humid Tokyo – no air-conditioning in our home, so he slept in the office).

It truly was a very special place to holiday. We had a little Japanese house with tatami floors and shoji (wood and paper) room partitions. Of an evening my father would light the wood fire under the boiler, and we would all troop into the bathroom, scrub up, and climb into the very hot bath. Then we’d put on our yukatas for an evening’s family fun of Mahjong  …Sometimes he would read us traditional Japanese stories – a favourite was  The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima. Quite terrifying – we didn’t sleep well after that! Perhaps this is one such occasion because my mother looks rather fed up! I stuck with the yukata tradition in later life. Here I am in hospital at the birth of my son, and of course, wearing my yukata …Three years later at the birth of my daughter, I’m wrapped in another yukata. A man’s one, I think – not sure where that one came from …And then my children as they grew up also wore yukatas …A couple of year’s later and Helen’s wearing that yukata and James has moved on to another one …Breakfast in bed with their grandmother was a treat, and she has another lovely yukata …Many years later (this is 1998) my parents still continued to receive gifts of yukatas from their Japanese friends. This is such a happy picture of my mother wearing a most beautiful iris-patterned yukata …So, now in my mid-sixties, I have rather a lot of very treasured yukatas – acquired from various sources. Some are gifts from travellers back from Japan, some I’ve bought on Ebay, and I’ve found some in charity shops.

This bank of yukatas was to prove most useful to me when I started to make my own yukata because each one has been made quite differently. Only one – the shibori one, third on the right, – has been made traditionally  …Traditional yukata fabric is woven to a very narrow width. My bolt is just 35 cm wide (and 1074 cm long). This is so clever because it means that a yukata can be made with the minimum of seam finishing.

First I laid out the fabric to see how I wanted the prints on the fabric to join. It was clear that I didn’t need to worry about this. The patterns are designed to marry into each other wherever they meet.

A yukata made of a traditional narrow bolt takes two widths of that bolt for the back …When I looked at my old yukatas, I was amazed to see how differently they were made. The shibori yukata was made of two narrow bolts which had been joined down the back with a hand-stitched seam …By contrast this very pretty yukata featuring Japanese ladies and cherry blossom had no seam down the back which indicates it was not made from traditional narrow-woven fabric …
You can see that for the traditional yukata, there is no seam over the shoulders – another economy of effort! A narrow piece of fabric (half the width of the bolt) is attached to the front pieces to add fabric to wrap around the body. The placing of this front piece (and the width of the seams) allows you to make the yukata to fit a larger or smaller person …I studied all my yukatas carefully, deciding in the end the shibori one fitted me best so I matched the widths of my seams to those of this yukata …The shibori yukata was all handstitched – really beautiful work …But though I toyed with handstitching mine, I decided in the end to machine it …There was just a little bit of handsewing involved …Where necessary I used French seams to tidy as is traditional. For just one small section I sank to the modern technique of zigzag machine edging …Most of the seams didn’t need edging because they were selvedges …The shibori yukata has an inner yoke of plain fabric to strengthen the area which gets most stress, so I copied that and cut up an old nightie for the purpose …My only mistake – and was I irritated with myself at this! – was the sleeves. You can see how the sleeve lengths vary here. I didn’t want a sleeve as long as the formal sleeve on the right so I cut from the shorter sleeve pattern on the left – and then found it was too short! Maddening! I had to add a piece in to make it a bit longer …All this time I’d been sewing from the unwashed bolt. I know this is not recommended sewing procedure, but there was a lot of dressing which helped with the sewing.

The time finally came to give the yukata a good wash – get rid of all those vintage years of sitting in cupboards unloved. After a good blow in the soft Northumbrian breezes, it is soft as soft …Now it’s proudly joined all my other yukatas …

Do I have a favourite? Hmmmm …. I’ll have to think about that …

Revisiting Yeavering Bell

It was Vibeke Vasbo’s The Song of Hild (1991) that took us back to Yeavering. We were last there in 2017, and we’d always talked of revisiting sooner, but somehow other walks and climbs got in the way …I’d read a review which praised this book highly, and as I’ve always been interested in the northern saints, I added it to my reading list.

Vibeke writes a good story about the life of St Hilda of Whitby (c.614 – 680 AD) – but it is very much a story. Almost all that we know of the life of St Hilda is from St Bede, and he certainly did not describe her marriage to Penda, the Mercian king! Nor did Bede recount that she spent her childhood at Edwin’s court of Ad Gefrin at the foot of Yeavering Bell.

But part of the delight of Vibeke’s novel is that she writes delightfully about Hilda’s youth there:

“Ad Gefrin was the children’s favourite place, and a very safe spot when Edwin first imposed peace in the region …Best of all was a spot just beyond the stream at the foot of the Hill of the Goats. Before you reached the next stream there was a little meadow with the most glorious thick grass … On a summer’s day, when the sun had been shining for a while, it was the most blissful feeling, eyes closed, listening to the beck alongside and the skylarks and curlews above.”Later, as an adult, Hilda revisits her childhood home:

“[Hilda]  had reached the summit of the Hill of the Goats … there was a fierce wind blowing, and she had to sit in the lee of the wall … she wanted the vista for herself!”

I can see why!It’s quite a racy and very graphic read, but oh – how I struggled with this book at the early stages! The history is new to me, and I was particularly confused by the names – so many Æ names! I really struggled to distinguish Ædelfred from Æthelfrith,  Æthelberht from Ædelthryd. And as for Oswald, Oswine and Oswy! So I filled the back pages with notes, trying to give myself a grounding in basic dates and characters of the time …When I’d finished The Song of Hild,  I wanted to read a proper history of these times, and turned to Max Adam’s The King in the North (2013) – another challenging book at the start! This isn’t just a book about St Oswald, King of Northumbria (604 – 641/2 AD). Adams begins with pre-Bedan history – Colm Cille and Iona – and his sources are difficult and obscure for a beginner to this world like me. But once he’d gathered pace with Oswald’s life, I found it riveting.When he describes the court of Oswald’s royal predecessor, Edwin, Adams too takes us to Yeavering, to the royal estate of Ad Gefrin at the foot of the mountain:

“The place where hundreds of Bernicians underwent the rites of  salvation was another royal residence, one with the strongest heathen overtones: Yeavering … Yeavering is pre-eminent among the excavated settlements of Early Medieval Britain, investigated in the 1950s and 1960s by an archaeologist of rare talents … Here Hope-Taylor believed that he could actually identify structures commissioned by the historical King Edwin … “And Adams take us back to Yeavering again when describing Oswald’s life as an established king:

One of the most important [ancient routes] linked the ancestral seat of the kings at Bamburgh with the tribal holy mountain and cult centre at Yeavering. I imagine Oswald and his court making that journey of twenty miles or so towards the end of April because May Day, or Beltane in the British calendar, seems to have been the date when cattle renders from subject kingdoms were collected … At Yeavering the infrastructure for such ceremonial taxation was present in the great palisaded enclosure, a corral enclosing nearly three acres …

Here looking down on the now-completely-vanished township of Ad Gefrin with its huge corral (located in the centre of this picture) from the summit of the hillfort on Yeavering Bell …Now I was getting my teeth into this history, I was not to be stopped! After all, I was filling in some of holes of the history I had been taught at school. I raided our bookshelves, libraries, abebooks, and came up with a bookpile …Hillforts. Prehistoric  strongholds of Northumberland National Park by Al Oswald, Steward Ainsworth and Trevor Pearson (2006), was particularly useful because it focussed on the Iron Age hillfort …It’s only human to wonder – as you pass through the great entrance to the Yeavering hillfort – what this place was like those thousands of years ago when earlier humans lived here  …What was life like in the round houses spread over the enclosure – some 125 at least identified by surface traces …And Hillforts fills in some of the gaps. It is thought that by the Iron Age there would have been relatively little of the original wildwood left. So looking down to the valley with our imaginary ancestors standing beside us we guessed we would have seen an agricultural landscape too – but certainly rougher and less managed than ours (definitely no rectangular tree plantations!) …Yeavering. People, Power and Place by Paul Frodsham and Colm O’Brien was my final read, and a good choice for that as it draws together so much.  It was written in 2005 so is of a time with Hillforts, but it draws all the archaeology of the site together.  This was particularly important for me because I was struggling to hold all the timelines together in my mind.On the one hand there is the Iron Age Hillfort, dated variously to some time in the first millennium BC,  and situated on the summit of Yeavering Bell …Then there is the site of Ad Gefrin, on the whaleback below Yeavering Bell, and dated to Edwin’s rule in the 6th century AD. Brian Hope-Taylor’s excavation of this site ran from 1953-1962 … And in addition to all of this there is plenty of Bronze Age archaeology in this environment as well. Quite a lot to hold in the mind – each element of these stories is full of interest and history.

And Yeavering touches on all of them – not least the remarkable 20th century tale of the chance discovery of the Ad Gefrin site from the air in 1949.

All of this history filled our minds as we set out on a extraordinarily sunny late September day to ascend to the summit of the Bell …The ascent was just glorious …Though steep at times, still that springy soft turf underfoot …The sun catching the top of the hillfort ahead of us …Climbing up through the heather …Approaching the fort entrance …Reaching the cairn at the top …And glimpsing the view beyond …That view looking over the walls ..Finding a good picnic spot …A little piece of heaven …Cheers to that!Then – down from the heights, at the entrance to Ad Gefrin …Of the mighty royal estate of Ad Gefrin, there is now no evidence…But the Hill of the Goats remains …

A summer of Covid times…

At the beginning of May I wrote about our life in Lockdown, here on the north-east English coast, starting with a glorious pic of the view from our home. Writing now – some four months later – I can’t help but reiterate “the banner pic really says it all – it is glorious as ever at our Seaview home, even in these Lockdown times. How very lucky we are.”

Looking back on what else I wrote in May, there was gardening, pottering round our home, sewing and knitting projects – and of course, walks! All of which have continued much the same.

But there have been the relaxation-of-lockdown treats. Going back to the hairdresser for one …Stephen opted to attend my Seaview barber shop (complete with cat comb and my best dressmaking scissors) in late May …And very best of all – visitors! The first lot came up from London,  here socially-distanced on our lawn in early July …Followed by more family in August, this time travelling up from Devon and Cornwall.  The weather started cruel (particularly considering it was August) …But then turned benign … And there was the first meal out at lovely Atelier’s in Berwick … That felt like a very big thing as Berwick and our local coast have been packed with visitors who – presumably – couldn’t get to their usual continental destinations for their holiday.

A repeat walk to Cocklawburn beach in August left us very taken aback! Look at all those cars – and revisit my May blog to see how empty this beach was in early Lockdown. Very good for local business, of course – but just a trifle discomforting for us locals …That lurch from cruel to benign and back again has been the story of the last few months’ weather (and perhaps other things in the national covid story).

The black poppies flowered exquisitely in July …And then the pots had to be brought into the house to protect the flowers from the powerful gusty – and unseasonal – winds. It has been so very windy this summer! I  think the winds of summer 2020 will remain in my memory longer than the covid restrictions …There have been a awful lot of damp and foggy days – this was June … And even though the flower beds looked glorious with August colour, so many days have been overcast … Sometimes it’s been nastier than overcast – truly a miserable August day here, but, yes, there was light on the horizon …And, of course, when the weather’s gloomy, the beach empties – but it is still insanely beautiful … And fascinating to explore the seafoam – even us adults can’t resist …Despite some awful weather …We have been to the beach often enough to find some fascinating new beach treasures. I’ve never found old leather shoes before … This has to be one of the haggiest hagstonesUndeterred by the ups and downs of the weather, we have walked and walked, exploring inland Northumberland as perhaps never before. The countryside is so immensely varied round here – we have managed to find delightful places to explore for every sort of weather the gods have deigned to send us.

In late June’s scorching temperatures we headed for Hepburn woods to walk in  the shade of the trees  …It had a primeval feel to it …July saw us walking along the Tweed from Horncliffe – a day of sunshine and showers. Not my favourite walk – I can’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps because it was overcast most of the way so the Tweed definitely wasn’t looking its best, and perhaps because this is all very much managed angler country. Still beautiful …Mown pathways – really to provide ease of access for anglers – make for easy walking …Interesting to see the weirs …July also saw us heading up Humbledon Hill on the edge of the Cheviots. This lingers in my memory as a star of a walk. For starters, the summer flowers were stunningly lovely. Whether it be banks of wild thyme …Or the intermingling of flowers and grasses and views …Or heavenly walking on soft springy grass up gentle gradients amid majestic surroundings …Or the view at the top – it was all just lovely. I dream of it still …But then July’s Cornhill walk was good too. This was along the old railway track that used to run from Berwick to Kelso. Wonderful wild flowers, easy level walking …And old bridges making such a powerful statement in the landscape … August saw us back in the Cheviot’s – this time walking up Great Hetha. We’ve climbed Great Hetha several times before, but never followed this particular route previously. Starting in the College Valley, we headed up through forestry plantations to little Trowupburn Farm, nestling in the folds of the hills …Then – on and up and up – To the glorious top – and the view …What a place for a picnic!We were back walking the old railway line again in September – these are great walks when the weather on the coast is just too windy for comfort. This time we followed a circular walk from Wark-on-Tweed …In the weeks since we last walked the old railway line, autumn has come …Fields have been harvested. So very beautiful …Last week we headed back to Hepburn woods, not to walk there but to use it as a base to climb up to Ros Castle Camp. Stunning views of the Cheviots and the Glen valley were the reward for this steep climb … Up and up through the heathery moorland …Then the next climb up to Ros Castle Camp itself …At the Sir Edward Grey memorial on the trig point at the top …With views over the moorland to the North Sea …And a brief stop at Chillingham Church on the way home – but alas, the church was still shut under Covid regulations … Back at home most of the fields have been harvested now …The last of the summer flowers are still hanging on as the golden field is ploughed brown …Our thoughts are turning – with the rest of the country – to winter and the fears of another Covid outbreak. At one time there were reports in the news of cats carrying the Covid virus …Are we bovvered? say Eggy and Ilsa – Naaaah!Alas, I cannot say with the cats that I am not “bovvered”. Our Seaview sanctuary has offered great solace through these summer months, but fear and worry are not far away. Some of the younger members of our family are looking for employment and some are travelling back to work again. Older folk have Covid in their care homes. Hearts for so very many are heavy. Stay safe.

Got my knitting needles sorted!

Many many moons ago my mother stitched me a fabric roll to contain my knitting needles. She made it beautifully, and I have treasured it and appreciated it for all these years …Thirty eight years ago, in fact …But over those 38 years, my knitting style had changed, and I have acquired modern needles that just don’t fit in the old holder. So I also had a box of knitting paraphernalia that looked like this…Recently, I saw this nifty little knitting needle holder on my Instagram feed, and a germ of an idea was sown. That’s just what I need! So I assembled my fabrics and treasures. It was very important to me that I make use of some of my nicest pieces of material for this project as I knew I was going to make something that would be a good friend for quite some time. In particular, I had quite a few pieces of beautiful Japanese fabrics and I thought they would look very well together.

I was also keen to restrict myself to what I could find in my own stash. Fabrics, of course, but also buttons, zips, ribbons etc Some of my early ideas (such as incorporating this charming rabbit embroidery as a flap to keep the needles in place) never materialised …It was definitely a very red project …First I made myself what all good dressmakers will know as a muslin (from an old sheet) …This was absolutely key to my whole project, and I referred back to it again and again as I progressed. It made clear to me, for example, that I had so many 4 mm needles that I would need a double pocket for them.

My muslin came our right at the beginning, before I had even cut any of my fabrics up, as I worked out exactly what size I was going to be working to …This then is the back layer (a wonderful piece of Japanese fabric my daughter gave me one Christmas) stitched onto the wadding (an old mattress cover), and ready for the second layer …Here is the second layer, and you can see how I used the muslin to mark out the pocket spacings …Kindly Ilsa dropped by at this point to cast a critical eye on my work …No, Ilsa, that’s not helpful!With Ilsa out of the way, it was now time to fit the third and final layer of back fabric …And once again consult the muslin for the placing of the pockets …Marking the stitching lines carefully with water erasable marker … Adding a few pieces from old dresses of mine to complete the centre panel … Just a little bit tricky to embroider the numbering …Getting a little carried away with the embroidering now …With the inner centre panel completed, it was time to move on to the side panels. I planned to make pockets to hold various knitting aides – stitchmarkers as well as the wires for my Knit Pro Symphonie needles …There was just enough of this fabulous scrap of Japanese silk  for the right side … I cut up a light net bag to make two see-through pockets to lie on top of the silk scrap …These were machine-stitched into place …But I had to hand-stitch the poppers to close these bags …On the other side, I decided to make two zippered pockets (reusing old zips of course). This fabulous batik printed lobster was part of my wedding dress – amazing really Stephen didn’t flee away quick …I handstitched the zips into place so as to be sure to get a really tight fit, and then machined the surrounding fabric to make secure pockets …Now for the outside cover. As it happened, I had been indulging in a little bit of happy mindless doodle-stitchery over the summer. This was an old dress passed on to me by a kind friend, and it lent itself so well to a bit of embroidery …It wasn’t quite long enough by itself, but was easy to extend with another piece of treasure from my stash. Now to quilt it all together …Just a few final touches now. My knitting needle holder needed an edging to finish it off.  What could be better than these lovely little Japanese flowers … Perfect edging for this project! You’ll see that I also added a couple of strips of vintage ribbon, roses on the right, and on the left – most usefully – a centimetre tape measure. And in the top right hand corner … ?Why – feeling smug after all this machining –  I gave myself Mrs Random-makes badge of sewing excellence!Just finally one thing to finish it all off before I put my knitting needles and accessories to the test – my own initials and the date …In go all my knitting and crochet accoutrements! A place for everything, and everything in its place!I think the outside is just as pleasing …But it’s also a thrill when it’s all scrolled up. With great good fortune I happened to have a lovely  Wallace#Sewell scrap in my stash  just perfect for holding my fabric scroll stylishly together …And even the cherry blossom binding gives me a frisson when seen all scrolled up like this ..Now I can’t wait to start a new knitting project because first I’ll have to get some knitting needles out of my new knitting needle organiser! 🙂

Alabama Chanin Style

I started my Alabama Chanin style dress well over two years ago – though it had been bubbling away in my mind for much much longer. Now I will always think of it as a Lockdown project because it is over these last few weeks that I have worked with most dedication and enthusiasm.

Way, way back in 2016 I was looking carefully at two little Japanese books I’d inherited from my father’s family. Nobody in the family today seemed to know very much about them. These pictures below show the covers, frontispieces and a couple of content pages …There were pages and pages of wonderful illustrations and designs  …I can’t read Japanese, and my father (who had been able to read Japanese) died in 2015, so I decided to put these illustrations up on my Instagram account in search of a translator …And I got one! Apparently these two little books were published in Tokyo in 1884 and 1881 respectively. The top book contains arabesque patterns for kimonos and the lower book shows crests and symbols of Japanese clans and families.

How did they come to my family, we wondered? Luckily my mother remembered the answer to that. Apparently my paternal great-grandmother had been an enthusiastic patron of all things Japanese, and is believed to have acquired these little books for her library … what treasure … I couldn’t really believe it …Anyhow – jumping forward to me and my humble little stitching plans, I found myself with a most fabulous resource of illustrations just made for embroidery and other designs ..

What I’d always wanted to do was to stitch myself a dress using the Alabama Chanin style of embroidery. This involves working with a double layer of fabric. Cutaways and very simple embroidery stitches make the pattern …I started with a practice piece using a variation of the leaf pattern above and working with old cotton t-shirts (as recommended in the book). And yes, I got a little bit carried away with the embroidery, but most importantly what I discovered was that I hated sewing cotton knit fabric. My needle struggled to pierce the fabric …As it happened,  I had found a double layer dress of very light woven cotton on Ebay … Just perfect, so now to find my pattern. I went back to my little Japanese pattern books, and selected a beautiful and quite simple design of falling maple leaves …I particularly associate maple trees with my father. He was always trying to make little bonsai trees with them during my childhood …With the image scanned from the little Japanese book, I then enlarged it and printed it out on stiff paper. That’s my template sorted. Now to cut the leaves out …I worked very slowly at first, sometimes adding pattern by tracing through the template …And sometimes building up the design by placing the maples leaves cut out from the template where I thought they might be effective …Either way, there was always that tricky moment of cutting the fabric …But then the fun starts and I could start stitching! Very basic running stitch round the leaves …Using a washable marker to ink in the maple leaf details …Stitching the details in with stem stitch …The stalks were stitched in chain stitch. Adding more colour …I’d completed the front of the dress …And moved the pattern over the shoulder and round to the back of the neck …When I came to a halt.  Not really sure why. But the project sat unloved for a year or so …

Until the virus struck this summer. I came back to the project like a madwoman – I guess Lockdown has a strange effect on us all. I found myself stitching madly and enthusiastically …Adding pattern to the sides of the dress …So that the maple leaves moved down the back, and round the body …Producing this trailing effect …I love this pic of the dress held up to the light so you can see all the little maple leaves silhouetted through the body …Finally just to hem it … and ta-dah! It’s finished! I am so pleased with the way it spirals round the sides …Under the arm …And, of course, down the back …What a fascinating mix of cultures and times and history are worked into it – the historic Japanese prints, the South-Eastern American techniques of Alabama Chanin, and me, at the vortex as it were, with a family connection to Japan, stitching away in the very north of England in the early 21st century Coronavirus Lockdown …

Lockdown Life

Well, the banner pic really says it all – it is glorious as ever at our Seaview home, even in these Lockdown times. How very lucky we are.

We continue to potter round in our garden with the help of our funny feline friends, Eggy and Ilsa …Who are eager to help with almost everything …Especially anything wheelbarrow …And of course the planting out of sweet-pea seedlings …In the greenhouse there has been sowing and growing of seeds …Which has necessitated some energetic digging to prepare veg beds for the new seedlings …Stephen has got the once-weekly shop down to a fine art, no longer arriving  to find a long queue …Being second in the queue is much more manageable …We celebrated Easter with tradition. I found this enchanting tablecloth in a local second hand shop, and it is my special Easter treat.  I don’t allow it to be used for long less somebody spill something on it … And I have been busy making Face Masks for family and friends …I was given this fabulous butterfly fabric by an internet friend, and thought it just right for a Face Mask  – but on second thoughts, perhaps it’s a little too extreme Silence of the Lambs for me … I’ve sent it to my daughter in London and she loves it …Still making more …We have the local beach in Spittal almost to ourselves …As the car parks are closed off …But very best of all are our weekly walks along the sea cliffs to the limekilns on Cocklawburn beach …On some trips the weather has been just a little challenging ..Especially if – like me – you wear glasses …But, even in the damp sea mist, Cocklawburn is very very lovely …No problems with social distancing here! Just the odd ghost train …Cattle huddled together …Most of our trips to Cocklawburn are more promising …The sea cliffs along the way are at their very best right now, sprinkled with tiny primroses and heavily scented with gorse …You can barely make out that powdering of primroses as you look down to the sea …But if you climb down a bit, why – that’s heaven on a plate! Primroses interspersed with violets …The cattle are a lot more friendly these days …We were amused to see on our return walk that this nursery encourages a post-prandial nap for the young!There is so much of fascination on this beach – never a dull moment. Sometimes visitors leave their own marks …Sometimes there are sad reminders of the harsh world outside …Always there are miracles in the sand like these beautiful ephemeral sandtrees …Often we find Cuddy Bead (those little circular crinoid fossils) treasure …And there is ancient as well as relatively modern history at the limekilns sitting above the prehistoric stone formations …An occasion for a birthday drink (we walked down here on Stephen’s birthday) before setting home … More likely a drink to the end of Lockdown …Like most of you, we miss our friends and family so very much, and the hardship and sadness of this difficult time is creeping ever closer to our Seaview sanctuary with loss and separation.  Beautiful it may be, but the heart can be very heavy. Stay safe.

Yet more knitted blankets …

Our house is full of knitted blankets – we really do not need any more!Nevertheless, over the past few years we’ve made several more, two more of them this last winter. They are all quite different in construction and size, but they still a pleasure to use on these wintry days …That’s Ilsa,-  cosily settled on the ruched throw I’ve recently completed …This is a really lovely pattern which you will find knitted in more muted single-colour tones on Ravelry here. I loved knitting it – and so did the cats, cuddling up with me as I beavered away on wintry nights …And it used up some (not all!) of my stash of handspun yarns …

It’s such a simple pattern, all knit in garter stitch.  The striped part of this blanket is doubled in stitches when it comes to the plain dark knit – thus giving a ruched effect.  I crocheted round the entire blanket several times to tidy the edges of my rather raggedy homespun …We all love this light little throw – perhaps the cats most of all. Indeed, there’s a possessive look to their presence here which is perhaps a little worrying …I really like knitting small blanket/throws. A year or so back, I knitted a green-toned one.  This was an adaptation of a pattern I found on Ravelry here. The Scrappy Lengthwise Scarf uses slip stitch  to make a scarf, but this pattern adapts very nicely to making a blanket.Such an convincing woven effect!While I wove all the ends in, Anne Wheaton used this pattern to great effect to make a fringed blanket. I stuck to habit and crocheted round my blanket …My only critcism is that slip stitches are very easy to catch!Definitely this winter’s pièce de résistance is the blanket we made of Stephen’s machine-knitted swatches …We’ve written before of Stephen’s machine-knitting designs and another blanket we have made from our knitted swatches.

This blanket started with me crocheting round the edges of his swatches and ironing them flat …Then they are laid out as we struggle to work out which pieces will fit where ..Not easy when Stephen has knit each piece to a different size! (Eggy doesn’t help either …)

Then there’s a long time while I stitch them together and we both get very fed up with the pieces lying on our sittingroom floor.  Finally the blanket goes into the washing machine for a light wash (to get rid of all that smelly machine-knitting oil), and out it goes to blow gently in the balmy Northumbrian breezes …The designer checks it out …It has an occasional home in our new (old) caravan. It doesn’t just look cosy, it really makes sleeping in there very cosy indeed …So it was well worth the effort.  But can I face next basketful of swatches?! Perhaps next winter …While I’m left contemplating the next knitted swatch blanket, I’ll hand you over to Stephen for him to explain the whys and wherefores of some of his patterns:

Inspiration for my patterns come from all over the place, from 60s op art to designs found in the built environment.
Several years ago we stayed for a few days in Ripon and explored the ruined abbeys of North Yorkshire. We found little surviving of Byland Abbey above ground level, but came across many medieval floor tiles still in situ, including this one.
I first designed a pattern to replicate it in knitted Shetland wool:
I then developed it to a second pattern adding a bit more interest
This is still very close to the original pattern. But my third pattern is much more developed, and it is quite hard to pick out the underlying original pattern:
The next pattern was designed and knitted in response to the Manchester Arena bombing. The bee is the symbol of the city, and both Katherine and I joined others all over the country showing our solidarity with the city in this terrible time by making small bee-patterned items. K made a padded heart, and I made this bee swatch to wrap it in.
The next pattern  is one I designed myself, and knitted in tuck stich – this was actually a tension swatch I used for scarves I knitted for my daughters last Christmas. The fascinating thing about tuck stich, where the wool is caught of the needle but not knitted, is that it distorts the pattern, with straight lines ending up slightly curved. In extreme forms of tuck stitch, when several rows of wool are not knitted, the tensions in the knitting make the fabric buckle and pucker in rather unpredictable ways.Finally, a pattern based on a very simple quadrant motif treated in several different ways.  Here the motif is put together in opposite pairs, and between the left and right side as shown the colours were reversed. Very effective, particularly when framed by Katherine’s crocheted border.
I used this pattern to knit several large panels for covers for our sofas. For these I also used another element that I like using in my designs, that of pure randomness. The width of each coloured band, and its colour was selected at random, using a simple computer program. Which version do you prefer, black quadrants on coloured stripes?
Or coloured quadrants on a black backgroud?
Food patterns for thought, hopefully!