In the footsteps of the saints

You can’t live in Northumberland without being conscious of the presence of the saints of old who once lived here. Modern street names remind us of them, they are remembered in the local names for wildlife – and their stories crop up all over the place.

Our own most neighbourly saints here in north Northumberland are Cuthbert and Aidan who are associated with nearby Holy Island – but there are others not much further away. And one of our projects earlier this summer was to explore a little further afield and find out about these more distant saints.

May took us to glorious Galloway on Scotland’s west and most southern coast. Late spring flowers were at their very very best …We were staying in Wigtown, a place noted for its very tempting second-hand bookshops.  We were indeed tempted by them … There are fantastic walks –  this was our regular evening walk along the Bladnoch river with the Galloway hills in the distance … And so much history. This beautiful walk amid the wild garlic took us from Garlieston to Rigg Bay where they tested the Mulberry Harbour used in the Normandy Landings. That curious concrete shape is all that’s left of this important project …Fascinating little old churches – this was Cruggleton Church lost in its surrounding field …But oh so inviting …Tantalisingly locked …And then there was the heart-breaking story of the two Covenanter women, Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, who were tied to stakes in the Bladnoch river to drown when the tide came in. They were Scottish Covenanters who refused to acknowledge Kings James VI and Charles I as head of the church. This memorial to the Wigtown Martyrs is a hauntingly sad place – inconceivable to our modern minds that people should be executed for such beliefs …But we were particularly drawn to a much older story – that of the 4th-5th century Saint Ninian. Compared to the previous stories I’ve touched on above, next to nothing is factually known about him – it’s so very early that most of the stories about him are entwined in myth and legend, with just nuggets of actual history. Of course, the real challenge for archaeologists and historians is to identify what the nuggets are. What we do know is that Ninian lived at least some hundred years earlier than the much better known St Columba of Iona (521 – 597 AD).

We are indebted for the earliest mention of him to the remarkable early historian, Bede, who was writing in the 8th century – a good many years after Ninian lived. And what Bede recounts, he has in fact acquired through disparate traditions …Bede tells us that Ninian came as a missionary to the southern Scots (other sources add that he came from Ireland) and that he led a strong revival of faith at the Candida Casa (White House) of Whithorn in Galloway.

Despite a series of excavations, this White House has never been found, but other excavated evidence does prove that Whithorn in the 5th century AD was indeed a thriving and sophisticated Christian centre.

The very early Candida Casa may not have been discovered, but there are fine ruins of the much later priory church (dating to the 12th century). Whithorn remained a pilgrimage destination for many years. King James IV (1473 – 1513), for example, is known to have made a yearly visit …The magnificent Romanesque doorway beckoned invitingly – but it is tantalisingly out of bounds for visitors until an archaeological health and safety inspection has taken place …Early Christians may not have left their history in definitive texts, but they did leave clear markers to their faith in the magnificent stone-carved crosses – many housed in Whithorn’s Priory museum. They are so beautifully displayed – the building has the air of respect that’s found in a church … The Monreith cross (dated to the 10th century) is perhaps the most stunning …As knitters and stitchers we were struck by the patterns (so reminiscent of Irish Aran cable knits to my mind), displayed here in my montage of photos …The carvings on the so-called Golgotha stone are the simplest, but it is one of the most powerful stones.  It was found in Whithorn’s graveyard …And the Priory Museum also houses the stone crosses that were found in Ninian’s Cave …So that is where we went next …A brief walk along a shingly beach takes you to a dent in the rocks – I’m not really sure you can call it a cave … Legend has it this is where Ninian retired for long hours of solitary prayer …The only distraction being the view of sparkling sea and rock …It is still a powerful place of prayer for many who visit.  They leave their own prayer markers – Christian  …And otherwise …Such beautiful flowers along the beach …We picniced here – a suitably respectful distance from the cave …A fantastic holiday, lots of interesting things to explore and enjoy, – but we were left with a hazy – if glowing – mental image of St Ninian. At the very least we know he was one for long solitary prayer. For me, he stands as a saint of the Irish tradition who communed with God in the natural world.

A month after our trip to Galloway, we set off on a day trip to Bede’s World in Jarrow – not far at all, just 60 odd miles down the A1 from our home. So easy that we felt truly remiss not to have made the journey before…Bede’s World adjoins the historic church and monastery of St Pauls, Jarrow. This museum complex was set up following the excavation of the monastery by Professor Dame Rosemary Cramp in the 1960s and 70s.

It tells the story of the Venerable Bede and his world. We were there to investigate our next saint: Bede …In contrast to Ninian, we know a great deal about Bede. He was a writer, historian and teacher, and it is largely from his own writings that we learn the facts about his own life. And, yes, this is the same man who wrote the book which tells us about Ninian (pictured above in Ninian’s story).

He was born about 672 AD in the lands just south of the River Tyne in the north of England. These lands had been gifted by King Ecgfrith of Northumbria to the very early Christian church.  Ecgfrith asked local nobleman Benedict Biscop to build a church and monastery there. Biscop, a devout Christian, had travelled several times to Rome. He was an enthusiastic reader and collector and brought back Roman building ideas, as well as books and other artifacts.

The first church he built was St Peter’s, Monkwearmouth (just a few miles south of Jarrow) and it was this church that Bede entered – aged about seven – in 680. Bede moved to nearby St Paul’s, Jarrow (shown below) when it was founded just five years later by Abbot Ceolfrith …Remarkably the dedication stone is still here, high up above the chancel arch – the oldest known dedication stone in England …

The tiny chancel is the nearly complete Anglo-Saxon church that Bede would have worshipped in … High up on the right of the picture above you can just make out these tiny Saxon windows through which Bede might watched the sunlight streaming in just as we did …

The window on the left contains fragments of 7th century glass found during the excavations …According to the Bede’s World museum, this area was an exceptionally important centre for glass making at the time …. Going outside again, we walked around the ruins of the monastery that Bede would have known …It is extraordinary how close one is able to feel to Bede with so many of the buildings he would have known still there – and so many of his writings available for us to read too …

But – if you lift your head just over the monastery walls, you can see the 21st century pressing in …It is miraculous that the Jarrow monastery remains, given that this area of South Tyneside became a centre for heavy industry from the 1850s onwards. This 1963 aerial view (reproduced courtesy of Tyne &Wear Archives & Museums) gives an idea of how the landscape has changed from Bede’s time. Every scrap of land was used for machinery and housing … But if you look down to the little river Don which borders the Jarrow monastery’s land, you must be seeing pretty much what Bede would have seen some thirteen hundred years ago.

Bede spent his life here, dying in his cell in 735, aged 63 …Both these saints were extraordinary – after all they clearly made a powerful impression on their very different Anglo-Saxon worlds.

In many ways, it’s Bede who speaks to me more clearly over the centuries. It’s not just that the buildings he knew so well still remain – it’s the books, the writings. We take literacy so granted nowadays, but it was very unusual in Anglo-Saxon times. And to embark on such a major project as his “History of the English Church and People” from scratch, so to speak, – well, hats off to you, Bede!

But aren’t they two sides of the human coin? Bede the cerebral one, and Ninian the saint of contemplative mysticism? I have no doubt I’m simplifying them here. Ah, but what it is to stretch back the imagination over the centuries!

What I can say without any doubt is that in both places these saints were much loved by their modern curators, church wardens and tour guides.

Prezzies for little birthday boys!

July is birthday month for the littlest grandsons in our family, so I mustn’t let the month pass without noting the handmade gifts they got this year – and what a blessing it is to have them still small enough to enjoy grandma’s “handmade”!I’d long wanted to make a fabric book so I was happy to acquire Rebecca Page’s Doll’s House Quiet Book to inspire my stitching. You can find it on Etsy. It’s a really good basic clear pattern, with lots of ideas to help you create a really imaginative toy. My quiet book follow the structure of her book. There is a front cover…I personalised it with collage (lots and lots of handstitching – my happy place), buttons (that’s a number Zero on the front door because that is Felix’s favourite number)  – and fabric photos.

You can get specialised fabric paper for use with your home printer (Prym Creative Fabric Printable – available on eBay) , or some copy shops will print straight onto fabric for you (as they do t-shirts). Worth experimenting with …

The next page features the bed …I added a little bit of a child’s rhyme – but customised it for this special book …You need to reverse the writing before transferring it onto fabric. I use Photoshop for this, but I believe you can also do it in Word …The text is then inked over with a Hemline Hot Iron Transfer Pen (also bought on eBay), and ironed onto the fabric. Here is Gary Goblin transferred onto felt for stitching …Now we come to the fun part – these little characters! I asked my son, Jam, to get drawing – and these are some of the guys he came up with…I selected six (there was only room for six in this bed!) and got stitching. Gary Goblin, of course …And Little Les (they all wear their names on the back) …And just a couple more …And then we had a full compliment – here they’ve all got out of bed!They can go to the playroom next door – where there are toys tucked into the play bags. Very Hungry Caterpillars of course …On the back, I followed Rebecca Page’s suggestion and put a pond – with lots and lots of weird and wonderful animals stitched into this colourful collage.  Plus some finger puppets to play with (a Zero, of course) …And here’s Birthday Boy Felix, absorbed in the finger puppets …Which gave me an idea for Roo (whose birthday was later in the month). I was all out-booked by the first book I’d made, but finger puppets are obviously a winner. So we set out to make some more finger puppets …The characters come so easily with felt, a bit of raffia, odd scraps of wool, stitching.  There is so much you can do when making these little people. I just found that I had to let my mind run free and play …Little Roo has a musician dad so there has to be a guitarist …Well, perhaps a couple …And finally, Stephen ( having already loaned the shape of his hand for this project) put together a stand for these little characters …Just look at that little Birthday Boy Roo’s face!I’m sure there’ll be plenty of play value in these simple toys in coming years. And the best thing? – why you can always respond to requests and make more characters as required!

Happy Third Birthday, Felix, and Happy Fourth Birthday, Roo!

Desire Paths

I was introduced to the concept of desire paths by the Gentle Author of Spitalfields.

He’s writing in the city, noting the allure of choosing your own route, “where the given paths fail and [how] the multitude of walkers reveal the footpath which best takes them where they need to go.”

A little like this traveller I spotted at London’s King’s Cross station some years ago …And the shoppers in Edinburgh – who are so eager for their destination that they barge across the grass allocated for trees …Or – perhaps worse – make ugly tracks over the newly-planted grassy slopes of Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens …Even in the countryside round us we see a wide range of desire paths. You just have to get to the sea as quickly as possible, don’t you?And, when access to Norham Castle is barred by English Heritage in the winter months, why – folk just walk round the gate and climb over the wall …The desire path by the side of Lindisfarne Castle some years ago was a complete mystery …Because it ran closely parallel to the much more comfortable stepped path provided by the National Trust. Are humans just pig-heads about this sort of thing?Far, far more fascinating, I think, are the desire paths of nature. When water forces its way into new channels … The well-worn tracks of cattle over the landscape …Sheep  – like cattle – find a favourite route and stick to it …I wonder if it is dogs or deer who have made this track down to the River Tweed?Some tracks into the woods and fields are so slight as to be barely visible …But some animal has seen or smelt something worth investigating in this field …It’s the apples on this tree growing so very close to the east coast railway line that have drawn people over the wall … Sadly this won’t be possible for much longer as railway authorities are putting new protective fencing along the railway line. Is it naughty of me to smile to see that it isn’t indestructible? On these same seacliffs beside the railway, young motorcyclists joyously ride over the rough grass, leaving tracks and paths like the cattle and sheep …Perhaps my favourite desire path is that made by our beloved cat, Ilsa, here surveying her private domain …There is a clear path into the grass …Sometimes only her tail gives her presence away …She’ll come out gradually …Before giving you her happy smile – she doesn’t mind because it’s you who’ve come to talk …In so much of our walking about this countryside we find slight tracks and indentations – not exactly desire paths as such, though all leading to a desired point. To the very tip of the cliff near St Abbs …Over the summer machair on Holy Island …And – invitingly -on a gently sloping hillside in the Cheviots …Which calls to mind this beautiful poem by Spanish poet, Antonio Machado …

Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship’s wake on the sea.
Translated from the Spanish by Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney.

 

Storm Arwen – and beyond …

We were warned it was going to be nasty – but I don’t think we’d really taken in exactly how nasty it was going to be. The XCW weather forecast pictured above shows extreme winds (for us), so, early in the day, we bolted down and removed everything we thought might fly around in the garden …

How naïve we were!

It was horribly wild and noisy from early afternoon – far too rumbustiously noisy to sleep upstairs where the bedrooms are just under the eves. And the cats were more edgy and nervous and unsettled than I have ever seen them before. So we unpacked the emergency bedding …And made ourselves comfortable, offering what security we could to the cats, as the storm raged around …The electric went off as I was starting to cook our evening meal at 7. So it was out with the candles, the torches and mobiles for entertainment. Cold cheese and crackers for supper … A very long, frightening and wild night with crashes and bangs as goodness knows what flew around about the house, hurtling into the conservatory and garden. Far far too dangerous to venture outside.

Despite the terrifying noise of the night, I don’t think we really expected the destruction that we woke up to in the morning. In the garden …And at the back of the house …And when we finally went outside and saw the size of the material that had flown off the roof – all those heavy ridge tiles!Fences down …And the conservatory roof dented, a panel missing …Later we discovered exactly how far the wind had carried our roof tiles …I can’t adequately convey the shock we all felt – immediate neighbours, and people living in nearby Berwick and further inland – many of whom had sustained substantial damage to their properties.

But my goodness, how lucky we have been since! Almost all our ridge tiles had come off, but our star roofer was out and up on the roof even in the cold, wet and very slippery dark …It was too big a job for that night, so he just patched up and we did have a week or so of leaks about the house …Until he and his mate were able to give the roof serious attention. Of course, part of the problem has been that everybody else needed roofers, builders, glaziers, woodmen …There were days and days without electricity, then without water, then without electricity again. But for some folk in the outlying parts of Northumberland it was much worse with fallen trees making reconnection very very tricky for the power people …

And through it all we had the fire – so many people nowadays don’t have any heating without electricity …It took us a long time to recover, and get back to our usual pattern of weekly walks. Partly the weather wasn’t kind, and partly we honestly were so shaken.

The other big problem we had was that so many of our walks are in wooded areas, and we knew that Storm Arwen had caused immense damage to trees.

So our first good walk wasn’t until the 9th December, and we settled for a walk along the coast to Cocklawburn beach …The beach to ourselves …Our faces say it all – how invigorated and cheered we felt!Emboldened by this walk, later in December we decided to drive inland to the village of Wark to walk the old Berwick-Kelso railway line to Sunilaws station – not exactly a wooded area, but with more trees than around us.

It was a bitterly cold frosted day …But so very beautiful in the sun …We saw nobody – just a couple of grazing deer up on the hill …We had to pass some fallen trees on parts of the track not used by local farmers … But mostly it was a pleasant walk in the sun, with little or no obstruction …Fantastic glimpses of colour …And an icy cold picnic. We didn’t linger …But walked quickly on to the old Sunilaws station (closed in March 1965). Those are the old railway platforms on the left of the picture … Here is the station manager’s house. The NER clock permanently set at 11.35 …Parts of the level crossing equipment are still standing … And in wonky fashion, this station still announces itself as Sunilaws …Four days later, we set out to climb up Chatton Hill, thinking again this would be a relatively tree-less spot. The weathermen said it would be still – and they promised sun!

There was no sun, admittedly there was no wind, but it was very very grey and very very cold too. However, it was clear enough to look over to the Cheviots …And we did find the rock art. It remains a message of mystery from the ancients – nobody knows its purpose, nor exactly when it was done. But it is very beautiful and extremely fascinating. I find it extremely moving to read this evidence that others left on the land many many years ago …Work had just started to take down a damaged tree, and we were struck by  the extraordinary orange of the inner wood …As we drove to Chatton, we saw real damage. Plantations of soft woods suffered particularly badly from Storm Arwen …Huge root balls casually chucked aside by the storm …Our next expedition was to Doddington Moor earlier this week. Travelling on the Wooler road, we saw much much more damage. Wooler was particularly hard hit by the storm, being without electricity for many days because fallen trees had brought down powerlines and blocked access.

We spoke to one resident in Doddington who told us he had been without electricity for eleven days! Luckily he had a generator – but many were not so lucky (or provident).

And how extremely lucky this tree just missed the nineteenth century Dod Well Cross!A fascinating start to our walk as we looked back to that low-lying mist hanging at the foot of the Cheviots …It got a bit sunnier as we set out to cross the moor …The heather and bracken glowing a deep reddish brown …We paid our respects to this rock art …And then the gloom descended …Parting dramatically as we started to walk down the hill …To reveal the lands of the Glendale Valley …More damage here. The storm had found the weak point of a rotten gateway …And – as we drove home – yet more damage.  This will all take much money and hard work to sort out. It is not only a matter of removing the fallen trees. All the other trees in these plantations will need checking to ensure their roots have not been disturbed …We long to revisit some of our favourite wooded walks such as those at Kyloe  and Hepburn. But it may be a while until it is safe to do so.

In the meantime, we are counting our blessings  (even though I had to put another bucket out this morning to catch drips from the damaged conservatory roof).  Our neighbours’ huge high roof still has plastic flapping round to cover the holes.

We are just hoping the locals are right to say it was a Once-in-a-Hundred-Years storm…

Pond parties

I’ve been muttering about a pond for some while (several years in fact) but I do not know why this summer was the summer when we actually started to make one …The first sod was dug in May – when the summer was ahead of us and the weather full of promise …It grew impressively quickly – but was hard work …Local walks brought treasures for the one-day-to-be-completed pond …The tadpoles were given a temporary home in cooler surroundings until the pond was ready for them …Meanwhile with the relaxation of the covid rules, Visitors arrived! A blessing in itself after all these many months of bans on travel and visiting, but perfectly timed to help with the pond too! It was all hands on deck …Elias proved to be a master digger!Felix was not to be outdone by his father’s prowess and joined in heroically …Soon we had a lovely dry pond …And Eggy loved it!Sunning herself on the side …And rolling appreciatively – and worse! – in the lovely muddy area which surely we’d prepared specially for her …?While Eggy was showing her appreciation in the way only a cat can, elaborate works were taking place to shore up the crumbling earth walls …And edge the pond with a level brick surround …Stephen spent long hot hours working on this. Ilsa – as you can see – scarpered when hard work was mentioned …Meanwhile more Visitors arrived. Here are Stephen and Lorna deep in pond party consultation …Finally it was time to prepare the pond for water. First some manky old carpets collected from local skips were laid on the base (to protect the expensive butyl liner from sharp stones) …Then the felt pond liner and final butyl liner were unwrapped …… And laid in the pond. Time to start filling the pond!Result! Here’s the butyl liner trimmed and held in place by more bricks and water …The next step was to acquire plants. Norjan Pond Aquatics of nearby Coldstream supplied us with some fine healthy native plants: Water Mint, Yellow Flag Iris, Giant Kingclip, Cypress Sedge, Hornwort and Milfoil. Just enough to get started …The June pond filled with water and planted up called for a celebration …We got seating! – even if the cats were a bit contrary when sitting on it …And the tadpoles moved into their forever home. Alas, it didn’t prove to be so for long …Because – to our intense excitement – the tadpoles turned into a frog. I say “a” frog because only one – or possible two – were ever sighted …So thrilling! You’d think we’d have learned many years ago at school that tadpoles turn into frogs …But the frog(s) and tadpoles just disappeared. It might be because of the birds. Or it might be because of Ilsa – who just loved the pond from the word go ..And spent hours studying it …Meanwhile the pond was acquiring an elegant edging from stones that we’d picked up in the locality …The completed stone edging looking so very “right” for this place …Visitors Jam and Nina arrived to admire the pond … But – oh, dear, Ilsa was nearly late for this party – just look at that wait-for-me tail!The grass seeded into the cracks round the stones began to grow – together with a few little Ajuga Reptans …And had to be carefully cut by hand …We watched the pond change as the seasons too changed. In June – as the wheat crop started to turn to gold – we caught the full moon …Come August those fields were seriously gold when Helen and Felix returned for another visit …Sunshine and shadows and colours of the plants and fields were strikingly beautiful …Hot hot colours in the ploughed field caught in September’s evening light …The gift of warm September days found me taking my breakfast by the pond …And when I wasn’t there, the cats were …Ilsa regularly drank there …Come the autumn Eggy finally made her peace with the pond. It had taken her several months to get over the loss of her beloved “dry” pond, and she approached warily, if at all. But one fine October day, I found her sitting in tranquil meditation,  studying her reflection …She was taking an interest in the pond chores too. We had learned that ponds aren’t just pleasure – they require constant maintenance. Like removing the algae. A near-daily challenge …As I write in mid-October we are in the garden less but that doesn’t mean the pond parties have stopped. Oh no – just that there are other guests. Often pigeons …And delightfully, hordes of little sparrows. They’re too shy to be photographed close up, so I had to take this picture through the conservatory window. The pigeons are there, yes, and a crowd of sparrows on the lawn too. But there are also wee birds pecking and rooting around in the pond. Sometimes they bathe, sometimes they paddle – and sometimes they just drop by for a drink …The pond is still magical on darker early evening nights …And dawn from the pond (which we only see over the winter months) is promising to provide more stunners like this …We’d never planned for pond parties, but what an abiding joy they’ve proved to be. Long may they continue!

Old men’s shirts

So you’re a diligent mender and repairer (you’ve been mending from long before visible mending became a “thing” on social media), and you’ve repaired and repaired your husband’s shirts, adding patch on patch …You’ve diligently stitched over those elbow holes …You’ve turned the collars … And now yet more mending is required as the cuffs start to wear away. What to do?!I guess a lot of folks would consign old shirts in this sort of a state to the rubbish, or perhaps useful rags. But these are such old friends! They are worn so soft and tender by literally years of wear. And the memories! Here’s Stephen in New York (averting his eyes from the buttons – which he hates) in the red shirt with patched elbows above …And there’s Stephen in characteristic worn check shirt opening the doors onto the overgrown patio of our new home  …And here he is – intensely focused – as he started to learn how to play the Northumbrian pipes. He’s wearing the shirt with the very worn cuffs above …So I’m far too much of a sentimental, soppy sort of person to just dispose of these old soft friends.  Indeed I have a track record of finding new ways to reuse old treasured fabrics – way, way back I made us a quilt with exactly the purpose of preserving old fabrics with old stories.

This time I decided to make us a new duvet cover – something we badly needed anyhow. So not just a sentimental project, a practical one too.

I’d already picked up some ideas from fellow Instagrammers. Both these quilts used strong bands of colour to frame the disparate pieces of patchwork …So I dug out some strong plain colours from my stash …And assembled the old shirt pieces. These were all cut to the same length, but were of varying widths …I incorporated some of the patched pieces too …Laying out a rough template of what the finished duvet cover would look like …Here is the finished project!After a nice cleaning blow in the soft Northumbrian seabreezes …But there were lots more lovely soft pieces – hmmm, what to do with them? (Apart from letting the cat sleep there …)Somehow – I’m not quite sure how – they presented themselves to me as the perfect materials to stitch together for a little doodle stitcheryThe corresponding lines work so well together. And I could incorporate those old loving patches …Along with some fun re-interpretation of plackets and buttonholes … I used old cotton bags as the backing on which to place and stitch the pieces – you know the sort of ones that companies give out at every possible opportunity along with biros and mouse mats.   They are such uninspiring bags but they do provide fine firm fabric for projects such as this …I started just to stitch and stitch, not really knowing where I was going …Gradually the idea formed in my mind that I could make a nice bag of this. However my piece wasn’t large enough for such a project, so I had to add some more cotton fabric. A really good idea as it firmed the bag up where the handles would be fitted and a lot of the carrying tension would lie … Soon these extra strips were incorporated into the whole …Today, this is still very much a work in progress – I am in no hurry to finish it as I am enjoying the stitching so very much …

I have it mind to add some more of the buttons that I cut off from the shirts when dismantling them …And I also want to add some words – but I am still wrestling with exactly what words. I wonder if anybody can help me out with a poem about the pleasures of old fabrics, of soft worn shirts?

Definitely something more exciting than this is needed …There is still plenty more old shirt fabric to use …But don’t worry, I’ve left Stephen just a few shirts to wear for the moment …I am still stitching …

#veryhappystitcher

Winter lockdown

This last lockdown – a winter lockdown for those of us in the northern hemisphere – has been hard. I don’t know any that haven’t found it so. The cold weather, the limited activities feasible given the weather conditions, and, of course, the terrible loss of life and health as covid raged through our hospitals.

We were ready to welcome visitors at Christmas – and then disaster struck with a mutated and highly-infectious virus rampaging through London.  Planned visits from London family were cancelled. There were still Christmas celebrations at Seaview – and nature was as glorious as ever – but it didn’t quite feel the same …However, there was time for lots of Christmas music …This year the Christmas decorations were a feast of felties … Family presence was distinctly modern …Like so many others, for us it was a Zoom Christmas …The toilet roll Holy Family joined with my father’s Buddha and the Iranian prayer clothes to keep watch over us all …There was a surfeit of Christmas goodies when we got to January since we had not had the expected visitors …Warming food …Which was a good thing as there were chilly wintry sunrises … Icy wet fields …Floods threatened in Berwick …But there were still good walks. The Covid restrictions have driven us to explore our locality as never before. One fascinating walk took us to the old Scremerston mine buildings. Our walk started in Scremerston where a fine Victorian bridge crosses the old wagonway ..Down along the track …Which has been imaginatively customised for children …Still a bit wet in places …To the old buildings of the Scremerston mine …The old water tower is a magnificent affair!The entrance bolted tight shut …Then we walked back via Scremerston church, warmly benign in the wintery sunlight …And paid our respects to one John Harbottle who was accidentally killed at Scremerston Colliery on 2nd November 1865 aged only 45 …We picnicked in the churchyard …

Our route home took us past the local rugby club. It has a couple of old coal wagons on show  – a nice touch to remember how involved this area was with the colliery …And then we followed the wagonway back home down the Scremerston Incline. On a good day you can still make out the stones which would have supported the rails on which the coal wagons travelled down to Spittal docks …February brought me up with a jolt! We set out to walk down the track to explore Cargies limekilns, just north of Seahouse …The limekilns sit atop a ridge of rock right on the seashore …Magnificent buildings – still appearing to be in very good condition …But we hadn’t bargained on the low winter sun and the sliminess of the rocks we were clambering over. I slipped and fell, hitting the bridge of my nose hard on an upturned rock. A bloody nose and a real jarring shock to the system …Luckily we had cool bottles to help stem the nose bleed. (It’s always good to travel with a decent picnic) …Back at home, I surveyed the damage. Didn’t look too bad …But the next day I looked as though Stephen had beaten me up!Luckily I had no other injuries apart from a few bruises over the rest of my body. And the advantage of lockdown had to be that I wasn’t going anywhere – until the snow came …Hauntingly beautiful …
Lots of very hungry birds …My nose was healing, and I had new knits from my enforced days stuck inside …So we set out round the local fields …An extraordinarily fast-changing world …But I hadn’t reckoned on a loss of confidence from my fall. Just walking down the hill to the sea – a walk I do so often! – filled me with terror. So many people had walked down here in snowy lockdown, the snow had compacted and the track was icily treacherous …Later in February we walked from Norham churchyard and its enchanting snowdrops …Down to the very muddy Tweed  – the river in spate …Walking these muddy banks – slippery where the river had overflowed – was almost as scary as negotiating the ice …My beginning of March birthday was a disappointingly quiet affair, but the cats made a party of breakfast for me … And Stephen made a delicious Ras El-Hanout cake with lemon and rose petal icing for my birthday tea – yum!March saw us walking the old railway tracks from Cornhill again – a very familiar walk now, and this March was full of spring promise with primroses …Purple violets …And masses and masses of white ones too …Just a couple of weeks later, in the garden, the yellow exploded!  Daffodils (of course), primroses, cowslips, my yellow knits, some yellow very nice mice (an Ann Wood pattern) – and that’s our resident yellowhammer in the centre … March brought a different but very wonderful sign of hope with our first covid vaccinations …So although April’s Easter was again a visitor-free event for us – just cats! – life felt different, optimistic even  …What a winter! what a difficult chilly spring! Through all the upsets – and alas, there have been those – we have been sustained by warm contacts with family and friends through social media, our cats, books, knits – and walks.

We invested in a groundsheet when winter set in …And through the season we have picnicked every week bar two when the weather was too foul to even contemplate a walk. On two occasions we went out, but it was too wet or cold to think of sitting outside. So we sat in the car and contemplated the Cheviots in a little warmth …But there were many many occasions when – like here on Holy Island in November – we sat outside in balmy sun. How glorious Northumberland is …Here’s to better times then!

Of course, although England starts to relax its lockdown today with the reopening of many shops and facilities, we are not out of the woods yet. But I fervently hope that we are drawing to the beginning of the end of this very difficult time. There is optimism in the spring air. But stay safe.

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.)