The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

I will let you into a secret.  It was for this view that we moved the 400 miles from Devon to live in Northumberland.evening light on Holy IslandYou are looking out of the window, over the fields, over the Eastcoast railway line, over the sea, towards Holy Island.  That bump that you see towards the right of the picture is the Elizabethan castle standing proud on Beblowe crag.  In differing lights the island looms grey or shimmers as a mirage. Sometimes it is wrapped in mist.  It is always fascinating.

It is as though one is glimpsing Avalon, the Isles of the Blest, a place associated with deep yearning and longing – and peace.

Although I have always felt drawn to this distant vision, I haven’t always enjoyed going to Holy Island.

Our first visit was in August 2004.  Like the rest of the day-trippers, we’d checked the tide tables and driven over the causeway in a busy queue of holiday makers.  We were directed into a huge busy carpark, and followed the stream of people walking into the village where it’s all busy and bustling, and you can join the rest of the crowds in the tiny Lutyens castle, the mediaeval priory or the usual mish-mash of touristy shops.

Nothing special there.  Just busy, bustling and bustling.  How to reconcile this with the spiritual intensity of St Aidan and St Cuthbert, to draw near to the harshness of life that those amazing monks experienced who produced the Lindisfarne Gospels, to understand the holiness of the place?

Well – we have learned the way.  Now I can feel the island calling to me when we have not visited for a while.  It has worked its magic on me, and I am a disciple.

So – let me tell you about our visit earlier this week.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is not really an island.  It would be much more accurate to call it  a peninsula.  Peninsula – from paene meaning nearly in Latin and insula meaning island.  It is just that: nearly an island.

You have to cross a causeway to get to Holy Island, and the causeway is flooded by the tide twice a day.  So for approximately eleven hours of each day it’s inaccessible by road.driving over the causewayBefore the causeway was built in the sixties, you had to approach by boat, or else walk with your donkeys over the sands as these two good ladies did.Holy Island ladies crossing the causewayWere you to cross when the tide was high, you would be unable to drive right over the causeway. You would have to take refuge in this rickety little wooden hut and wait for the tide to go down.crossing the causewayYou are still directed into the huge busy carpark.  Even though it’s a long way off the school summer holidays, the carpark is crowded and busy.  Holy Island is an immensely popular visitor attraction. crowded carpark But it is from here that we diverge from the masses. Holy Island mapWhile most people walk into the village (or catch the local hopper bus), we back-tracked and walked along the road to a footpath that takes you over to the dunes.   Stephen striding ahead from the carparkThe expedition has begun!!  You can immediately see how different this area is.  The wild flowers are fantastic.  There are poppies and daisies….Poppies and daisiesand cowslips and orchids and buttercups and vetch…..cowslips and orchidsThere is also piri-piri.   At this time of year it is young and green and harmless. Young pirri-pirri plantsThere are warnings about piri-piri, and rightly so as it is most tiresome and we definitely do not want it to spread.Pirri-pirri burr warning signOne year, later in the summer, I unwisely trampled in the piri-piri and this was the result.  This plant has the best survival tactics of any I have ever known – it attaches itself with little wiry hooks which are the very devil to remove. and then it travels with you until it finds a nice new uncolonised spot to invade. pirri-pirri on Katherine's shoes After you leave the meadows, you climb up into the dunes, and there is the sea!  The vegetation is different here – more sparse and lower growing.  Everywhere the birds are calling.  I cannot capture the many larks we see as they fly up and up and up with their glorious singing.  But believe me, they are there, and their song is beautiful.looking for birdsWe sat on the edge of the dunes and looked down on this wonderful white empty beach.  Not a lot of birdlife here today, and no people at all.  Strange – there are usually oyster catchers, curlews and redshanks, and at least the odd beach-comber competing for finds.sandy beachesThere are, however, quite a few kittiwakes chicks in nests on the cliffs.  We can see one nest quite clearly.  There is a very demanding chick there!  You can see its open greedy beak, and boy, could we hear it!  When parents arrive with food, the chicks go wild and make an unholy din.kittiwakesAfter watching the birds, we turn inland again and head for the castle. glimpsing the castle aheadIt is fascinating how many different sorts of terrain there are on one small island.  We call this part the Moon Landscape.  It is actually what was once Nessend Quarry.  This is where, in the 1860s, they quarried for limestone.  The extracted limestone was fed into the limekilns (at the foot of Lindisfarne Castle) where it was roasted into quicklime (commonly used as an agricultural spread for neutralising acid soils).lunar landscape You clamber out through sandy dunes and are back in meadowland again.  We are once more in the land of verdant greenness.meadow flowersThere are traces of old dykes and ditches. The monks farmed here so these may be very old indeed.traces of old ditchesWe turn onto the old tramway that once carried the limestone to the Castle lime kilns.  This is very comfortable walking after the rough terrain of the quarries and dunes.  They’ve clearly been shearing the sheep – bits of their fleece are scattered all over like snow. walking the old tramway But it’s a coarse fleece – I shan’t be taking any home to spin.  fleeceNow we’re beginning to draw closer to the castle, and we can see the sheep whose fleece I’ve been inspecting.Lindisfarne castle from the distanceI love Lindisfarne castle.  The washed colours remind me of an Uccello painting.Lindisfarne castleIt is not an old castle as British castles go – nor did it see important action.  A castle was first built on the protruding rock of Beblowe Crag in the 1570s as part of the English defences on its unruly Scottish borders.  But in 1603 the crowns of England and Scotland were united under James (1st of England, 6th of Scotland), so after that the castle was rather unnecessary (although a small military garrison was maintained there for another three centuries).

It was reborn into modern life in the early 20th century when Edward Hudson (the owner and founder of Country Life magazine) acquired the building.  He appointed the distinguished architect, Edwin Lutyens, to convert the castle into a home.  Lutyens made a magnificent job of it.  It is enchanting inside – simple magnificence combined with a strong eye for detail.

On the shoreline below the castle people make cairns with the local stones.  We may not all visit Holy Island as Christians, but without doubt many people find in the place a deep spirituality.  I think this couple were building a cairn to commemorate the scattering of cremated ashes. building cairns I can well understand why you would wish to leave the ashes of those precious to you in the care of these little islands on the Northumbrian coast. 

You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid  (T S Eliot: Little Gidding)

On the distant horizon is the Inner Farne Island, whither Cuthbert retreated when he could no longer cope with the busyness of Lindisfarne.  cairns by the shoreNow we are rounding the shoreline and the old tram road path leads up to the Castle (those arches on the left are the Lime Kilns).  The castle sits like a galleon sailing in these magnificent Northumbrian skies.walking round to the lime kilns and castleWe are nearing civilisation …Stephen walking round castleBut first, glance up at the golden lichen on the castle approaches.  Lichen thrives where the atmosphere is pure.lichen under castle And look down, at the banks of valerian on the lower castle reaches.valerianWe are back now with our fellow tourists.   The ruins of the Priory are in our sights.joining crowdsA sunny lunch in the local pub.  It’s quite an ordinary little  pub, but how many other pubs sit so casually next to such magnificent ruins? Stephen in pub It was St Aidan who brought Christianity to these islands at the request of King Oswald of neighbouring Bamburgh Castle.  St AidanThe sainted Aidan was much loved and is still revered as a great saint, as is his successor, Cuthbert.  But in many ways it has to be said that Cuthbert has overtaken Aidan in the popularity stakes.  St Cuthbert amid ruinsThis is Cuthbert’s country.  He was – and still is – hugely special to Northumbrians.  They remember him locally as Cuddy.  If you look carefully you’ll see the Cuddy duck (actually an Eider) nestling at the foot of this rather curious statue of Cuthbert.  Crinoid fossils found on the beaches are Cuddy beads, and were once used to make rosaries.  Today there’s a ginger cat asleep nearby, oblivious to everything but the sunny warmth.  cat amid ruinsAidan and Cuthbert never knew this stone built Priory.  Aidan came here in 635, and Cuthbert is thought to have arrived here some 30 years later.  They lived and worshipped in wooden buildings which have completely disappeared, but are thought to have been on the same site.   LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMattGiven the simplicity of the monks’ lives here on Lindisfarne it is truly extraordinary that one of the finest books extant, the Lindisfarne gospels, was copied and illustrated here.  The Lindisfarne Gospels are thought to be the work of Bishop Eadfrith, Cuthbert’s successor on the island.  They are now one of the greatest treasures of the British Library.  First page of St Matthew’s gospel.  Image made available to the public domain by Wikipedia.wood carving of monks carrying Cuthbert's bodyThe monks left Lindisfarne in disarray when Viking raiders began a series of attacks on the monastery at the end of the 8th century.  But they took the body of their beloved St Cuthbert with them, and a fine wooden carving in the church commemorates their devotion.

In the 12th century monks returned to build the Priory that we see today.  It is a beautiful building, and despite the exposure to the elements still looks amazing.  You can still make out the details of the chevrons on the columns.  priory ruinsEven in the Priory, it is the Castle perched on Beblowe Crag that dominates.  It intrigues me that when I speak of gazing longingly at Holy Island, it is a conflation of the image of the Castle and the ethos that the monks created that sits in my mind.  The Castle is the stronger visual symbol of the place, but without the history of Aidan, Cuthbert, Eadfrith, and all their fellow unknown monks, it could just be another castle.  Of course, Mother Nature has a strong part to play in making this place remarkable too!looking from the priory ruins to the castleTime to face the world again.  There’s the whole Lindisfarne/Holy Island retail experience.  Lindisfarne shopsAnd then we join the pedestrians walking back to the car park.  I hope they will return to the mainland as refreshed by their visit to Holy Island as I have been. walking back to the car

Edin’s Hall Broch

Last week Stephen took me to Edin’s Hall Broch.   He had discovered it on one of his longer walks, but I had never been there before – indeed, had never even heard of it.

As it turns out, Edin’s Hall Broch is a very remarkable place, and I am surprised more people don’t know about it.  Or perhaps they do.  Perhaps it’s just another closely guarded Borders/Northumbrian secret.

For those of you who (like me) don’t even know what a broch is, here is a brief summary of received internet wisdom.

There is much debate about their function and purpose.  What is agreed is that they are only found in Scotland, they are superb examples of drystone architecture, and they are round.  Nobody is sure whether they were built for defensive purposes or to be lived in as farmsteads.

But ooooh – I do love the word “Broch”!  I roll it round my lips and savour the sound – quite different from any other word I know. Stephen in Edin's Hall Broch It wasn’t really that special a day to be out.  As you can tell from our photos, the day was dull, and it was quite sharply cold for May.  But it was still a comfortable – and very interesting – walk from the carpark, about a mile and half from the ruins.

After a short walk through a forested area, you cross the Whiteadder Water by the Elba Footbridge.  The Whiteadder Water then runs parallel to the walk as you climb the hill up to the broch.Crossing Elba footbridgeThe Whiteadder Water is magnificent here, swirling dramatically over craggy rocks.  But, wait – is there a yellow conspiracy afoot?!  There’s masses of gorgeous clumps of golden scented gorse, many of the trees are in that early flush of colour when the leaves are transparent yellowy-pale-green, – and to cap it all we saw a Yellow Wagtail bobbing around on the rocks in the stream! Looking down at the Whiteadder waterWhere the scenery wasn’t yellow and green, it was silvery-white.  The lichen is as much an ornament on these blackthorn trees as their own blossom.Lichen on treeOur route takes us on up and up.  The sheep gaze down anxiously at us from the ridge, not sure whether we are friend or foe.  Don’t worry, sheepy friends, we’re travelling up to the right of this pylon.

Ah yes, this pylon.  We were happily admiring the beauty and wildness of the place when we realised that there was a huge great plonking pylon – no, a chain of pylons striding across the valley.  How fascinating that we’d subconsciously “subtracted” it from our awareness.  How strange too that we object to wind farms but seem oblivious to these earlier man-made monstrosities.Pylons, sheep and gorseThe way is well-signposted.  But look behind the sign, and there’s a telling indication of modern farming.  That’s the old drystone wall broken and crumbling, and it’s been superceded by an ugly barbed-wire fence (which you can just see in the foreground of the photo).  How very sad.Route sign to Edin's Hall BrochNature gives and it takes.  En route we found evidence of the harsh reality of nature red in tooth and claw.  Somebody’s dined here….perhaps the sparrowhawk we saw wheeling above?Nature red in tooth and clawHowever the kindly sheep have left me some lovely bits of fleece to collect – it’s the softest and cleanest fleece I have found out and about for a long time.  Wish I could catch a sheep to take some more fleece home with me!fleeceFinally, we get to the top of the hill, and there – amid a lot of other stone ruins (it’s a prehistoric hill fort) – is Edin’s Hall Broch!  (You get a really good idea of the whole site with this aerial picture on the Welcome to Scotland website.)Approaching Edin's Hall BrochThe people who built this place knew about dry stone walls – they could teach modern farmers a thing or two.  Just look at the size of the stones at the base of this building!huge stones at base of wallsThe size of the walls too is enormous – at their maximum they are over 5 metres wide.thick wallsThere’s a proper entrance, and what must be a front door slab lying on the ground beside.entrance to Edin's Hall BrochOn either side of the front entrance, there are guard rooms.entrance to guard roomsSet in these huge walls around are well-built steps and more rooms. stone steps Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this place is that this is one of only a handful of brochs in the Lowlands.  They are mostly found in northern western Scotland.   And this broch is not like the northern brochs – it’s too large in diameter for starters, so there are doubts that it was ever roofed.  As you will see on the information board reproduced below, Historic Scotland have come up with the hypothesis that somebody in the 2nd century AD travelled south bringing broch-building skills with them and adapted them to this Border locality.Historic Scotland information boardWho knows?

What we do know, however, is that when this site was first excavated in the late 19th century, a number of artifacts were found (these were donated to the Museum of Scotland).  They include a stone spindle whorl, a piece of jet ring, an amber bead, an oyster shell, bones and a fragment of a glass bracelet.  Very much the normal sort of possessions of people’s lives – food, ornamentation, and the means to clothe oneself.

I’d read about spindle whorls recently in Rebecca’s Needle and Spindle blog.  She describes so clearly what an vital part they had to play in basic survival tactics – and that would have been especially the case in these colder northern climes.

So – I’m once again stretching my imagination back to the people who lived here, and I’m finding that they (like me) enjoyed a bit of bling.  Ancestors of the modern sheep grazing around would have been of value to them for clothing – just as they are to me.

The modern world interrupts my old-times reverie. Well – a slightly more modern world.  Down through the trees, on the other side of the Whiteadder Water, there’s a glimpse of an intriguing house – actually another Round House.  Apparently it’s The Retreat, built in the late 18th century by the Earl of Wemyss as a shooting lodge.  You can’t help wondering if he was referencing the round broch on the opposite hill in his choice of architecture……  It looks very comfortable and well-appointed compared to the exposed stony broch of the ancients.looking down at The Retreat

Family treasures

Recently I wrote about my story quilt, and the fabrics I had chosen to include and their family associations.

It got me thinking.  I started looking around at all the textiles lying about the house, and thinking about the people who had sewed or knitted them.  I was amazed to find so many treasures that family members had made.

Let’s start with the needlecase that my step-great-grandmother made.  Great-Gran lived in Miss Havisham-esque magnificence in her bedroom in a huge house in Leicester.  She took to her bed in early old age in the belief that her heart was weak, and she was waited on hand and foot by her family and a saintly elderly retainer, Miss Wood.  All around her bedroom were cupboards and boxes, filled with beads, silks, threads and other treasures.  If I was lucky (and a good girl) she would give me some beads or silks from her treasure trove.

Great-Gran’s workmanship was exquisite.  Here is the needlecase she made me.  I still use it everyday, and look at her skilled stitches and remember her bedroom.  It’s worth enlarging this image to see her detailed work – there’s beading along the edge.Great-Gran's needle caseHer son, my step-grandfather was also extraordinarily skilled at – well, just about everything.  He repaired clocks, made jewelry – and was a successful and busy business man to boot.  He also did tapestries.  This is one of a set of chair covers he embroidered.  A very stylish simple design which regularly gives me great pleasure.  (And – sadly – he predeceased his mother, tucked up in bed with her so-called heart problems). Gampy's embroidered  chair seat His wife, my Australian grandmother Dordy (she didn’t want to be known by any ageing grandmotherly term, so we grandchildren gave a family twist to her first name, Dora), was also a fine sempstress.  She never did any “hobby” sewing that I know of, but she made almost all her own clothes.  Perhaps there’d been greater necessity for practical sewing in the world she’d grown up in – I don’t know.  She loved to wear batik fabrics which suited her colouring very well.  Here she is outside her little London home with it’s beautiful garden wearing one of her handmade batik dresses.Dordy wearing batik dress 1971Many, many of her clothes came to me, and I wore them (usually cut down and altered into shapes I considered more fashionable).  The dress Dordy is wearing above is now in my story quilt (of which I have written more here).  Look below! My story quilt featuring Dordy's batik dressMy father, (Dordy’s son) took to tapestry like his step-father.  The best of his embroidered cushions are masterpieces of design, incorporating words and phrases in many languages. (He had been a linguist, a traveller and a diplomat).  I treasure this cushion particularly.  Apparently the Japanese characters say “Good Health.  No smoking.”  (I can’t verify that!)    A rough translation of the ancient Greek at the centre might be: “For each person chooses best for themself.”  The cushion was a gift from my father to mark the occasion of my giving up smoking.  He’s put his initials round the motif on the left, RHE, and the date on the right, 1982.  An important and precious reminder to me.RHE's embroidered cushionNone of the men on my mother’s side of the family sewed, but her mother did.  Granny was another embroiderer, and her chosen colour was blue.  She worked the cover of this stool, and this little bag for me.  It’s got my initials on it (KE) and the date (1960).Granny's embroidery stool and bagMy Aunty Jilly (her daughter) was a talented weaver.  I treasure  this scarf she wove with it’s red and purple pink tones – and the occasional shot of turquoise to give it lift.  Her use of colour is brilliant – she always gets it just right.Aunty Jilly's woven scarfMy mother is a sempstress par excellence!  She made many of our clothes when we were little.  Here we all are, in a symphony of blue (her favourite colour like her mother), at my youngest sister’s christening in the hot hot 1961 Belgrade sun.  I’m the eldest on the left, and my sister, Marian, is on the right.  My mother has made us the most enchanting hand-smocked blue and white cotton dresses.  Her dress is also blue – a paler colour.  Don’t we look an delightful family, with these beautifully dressed children (I see we’re even wearing gloves!)?  How extraordinarily photos can conceal the truth – my mother’s heart must have been breaking amidst all the happiness because just a year before she’d given birth to a still-born baby.  I don’t remember at 7 being aware of this – just the heat and the cosmos and sunflowers growing exuberantly. Elizabeth's christening 1961 My mother also knits, embroiders and does patchwork.  It’s really hard to chose what to chose to show that captures her skills best but I think I have to include a patchwork quilt.  Here she is, sitting beside the patchwork quilt she made with my mother-in-law, Liza, for my 1979 marriage to Hugh.  My mother designed the quilt, and sewed the patchwork.  Liza was an artist and embroiderer, and added names and dates, and some delightful little embroidery stories.My mother with the wedding quiltAaaggh –  this quilt evokes so much pain and guilt in me!  So much care, so much love, so much skill, and what did Hugh and I do but get acrimoniously divorced!  I know it is ridiculous, but the quilt sums up all my sense of failure at our divorce.

So what do you do when your marriage has fallen apart, and you have this beautiful beautiful quilt, made specially for you, and relevant only to you?  Well, you put it in the attic, which you know to be a nice dry place because you keep lots of other old fabrics and children’s clothes etc up there.  You put it in it’s own suitcase, which you know is clean and safe – and you forget about it.  Your mother never mentions the quilt again.

Then, one day, there’s a patchwork exhibition locally, and you think – wouldn’t that just be the right place to put this patchwork quilt, so it could be exhibited and admired as its due?  You hasten to the attic, get down the suitcase, and absolute horror of horror, the suitcase has “wept” red-brown stain (as I have never known a suitcase do before) all over your quilt.  Aaaagh again – and again, and again. *Wedding quilt dateAnd, no, I have never told my mother what happened to the beautiful quilt she and Liza made with so much love and hope for my first marriage.Wedding quilt signaturesLet’s move on to later times, other generations.

My husband, Stephen, is an absolutely whizz with the knitting machine.  It suits him so well, giving his mathematical mind full scope for the design of elaborate and beautiful patterns.  Here is the blanket he made for us.  These are all patterns he devised himself – that’s something I could never do, so I am completely in awe of this skill.Stephen's machine-knitted blanketThen there’s these gorgeous cushions that my cousin, Lucy, knitted for me.  Vibrant strong colours and patterns.Lucy's knitted cushionsThis beautiful wall-hanging that another cousin, Polly, designed and worked.  There’s calligraphy and stitchery and printing all combined into one marvellous work.Polly's View-Points calligraphic printLast Christmas, my step-daughter, Zacyntha, embroidered this cushion cover for me.  Incredible use of colours and design.   Each time you look at it, the patterns shift and it looks different.Zacyntha's embroidered cushionAnother step-daughter, Lorna, also designed and made us a cushion cover. I think this was part of her A-level Art project.  I love it – particularly how the colour changes just slightly where she’s run out of a yarn.  Just like the carpet weavers of old.Lorna's embroidered cushionThen there’s this wonderful box that my daughter, Helen made.  It’s another A-level Art project – she constructed the box, and the fabrics that adorn it are machine and hand-embroidered.  Naughty, naughty mum left it in the sun so the top is much bleached.  It’s still a treasure.  It was always a secret….. Helen's embroidered box So many precious things, so much love, so many memories – so much inspiration!

*Comforting words from Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt : “And remember, no matter how careful you are, you might not be able to prevent some damage to your quilt – no matter how attached you are to it… something may ruin it beyond repair, leaving only the memory of the quilt behind.  Do not castigate yourself; you may not be to blame.  You did your best.  These are fragile textiles.  These things happen.”

Thank you, Whitney.

Duddo stone circle

Earlier this week we walked to the Duddo stone circle. Duddo stones I am in awe of this place.  It is just magnificent.  On this visit – as on the other times we have visited – we had the place almost completely to ourselves.  Nobody else but the birds – larks singing, the odd cuckoo, an old pheasant croak.  Oh yes – a lone dog walker who turned round when she saw us at the stones and left us to enjoy the place alone. Stephen sitting against stone This is not a remarkable stone circle in  itself – it is small, and the stones are very worn and not really imposing.  But without doubt this is an extraordinary place.   Is it the location, the amazing views, the knowledge that this place meant so much to earlier peoples that they took the trouble to build this stone circle here?  A combination of all these, I would guess.Duddo stones from a distanceYou approach the stones along a flat dry path, some 20 minutes or so away from the road.walk up to Duddo stonesLooking down from stones to dog walkerWhen you get to the top, you can see that you are on a small mound in the centre of a landscape bowl that slopes away off into the far distance.Stephen looking over viewFrom the top you can see for miles and miles.  Right on the western horizon are the Eildon Hills, beloved by Walter Scott (called by the Romans Trimontium).looking over to EildonsTo the south is the looming Cheviot range. looking towards Cheviots To the north is the ridge that runs above the Tweed, separating Scotland from England, with Berwick at its most easterly point.  Looking northRadiocarbon indicates that the placing of these stones may date to as early as 2000 BC.  This site is very very old.  Duddo stoneThis is now a five stone circle.  Originally there were two other stones in the circle, but these were moved when – can you believe it?! – a determined farmer ploughed across the interior of the circle, disturbing the cremated human remains later found buried in the centre of the circle.Duddo stone 2The stones are worn, sculpted by wind and friendly sheep into the most fantastical of shapes – perhaps a bit like hands?Duddo stone like a fistSurely this is a fist?

In my mind’s eye, I stand on tippy tippy tip-toes and stretch my imagination back to the people who made and used this place.  It’s a gathering place, with crowds of people travelling over from the distant hills to stand at the foot of the mound, looking up at the stones and the rituals taking place there.

But Stephen reasonably points out that this area may have been wooded, not the open plain that we see today.  We just don’t know what the land was like then but the forest clearances do date to the period when the stone circle was set up.

It’s almost impossible to shift one’s mind from our world of take-away meals, worries about the NHS, fascination with social media, celebrity obsession, Ikea etc  to the people of four thousand years ago.Duddo stone with graffitti I wonder what the ancient peoples here would have thought about this modern graffitti?

My story quilt

Katherine holding quilt wide Last year, several things came together for me.

I found myself spending much more time sewing than I had for many years.

I was inspired by a blogpost I read by Rebecca of Needle and Spindle in which she wrote about the Needleworks Collective and their GiveWrap idea.  In brief, they aspire to reduce the horrific throwaway culture of Christmas and present wrapping paper by replacing it with beautiful handmade fabric wrappers which could be used and re-used many times.

As it happened, my cousin Polly and I were looking for a project that we might work on together.  In her spare time from music and Alexander teaching, Polly is a part-time printmaker.  Together we evolved a system of making joint GiveWraps with her printed fabric scraps incorporated in my surrounding patchwork.  We had such fun!  Here is our first GiveWrap (you can see Polly’s inclining printed ladies in the centre bands).First joint GiveWrapWe made a lot of GiveWraps last Christmas.  And I realised with a start that I was using up all my special fabric treasures on GiveWraps that I would probably never see again (the central tenet of GiveWrappery is that you pass it on, and then the GiveWrap is passed on again and again).

Further inspiration came at Christmas when Polly gave me the powerful novel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.  This is a story of slavery in America’s deep south.  One of the slaves, Charlotte,  is a fine seamstress, and makes a quilt to record her life story for her daughter.  Aha!! My quilt is nothing like Charlotte’s quilt (it’s arrogant of me even to compare them), but the seed of an idea was sewn, and I embarked on my own story quilt, sewing the odd fabric pieces together in the same way that I had made my GiveWraps.The invention of wingsTo give some sense of structure to what was really rather a haphazard quilt, I decided to restrict myself to the red, orange, yellow colour spectrum on one side, and blues and greens on the other.  Purples and browns, blacks and whites crept in unbidden everywhere.

I started with a mess.  So many fabrics, so many scraps, so many memories – just so much to put in.fabrics strewn everywhereIn the end, I had to be strict with myself.  After I had completed the central body of each side of the quilt, I allowed myself to put in only one piece of each of the fabrics that were left in the mitred edges.  Here the blue/green side is being built up to match the completed red/orange/yellow side.building up blue green side of quiltI added the polyester wadding to the red/orange/yellow side first.  You can see my basting threads holding the two layers together.  Our cat Poe thinks it is a new play place, and is not helping with the next step: adding the blue/green layer to complete the whole. Poe on battingWhile all this piecing was going on, I was researching quilting methods – after all, this was my very first quilt.  I watched youtube training videos, searched the internet for advice, dug out my mother’s old quilting and patchwork books.  I invested in thimbles and a curious thing called Aunt Becky’s finger protector  (which helps prevent you ending up with sore, needle-pricked fingers).  With all three layers well-basted together, I set to with my thimble, Aunt Becky’s finger protector and needle.

Disaster!  I really am very bad at quilting!  My nice level running stitches on one side were completely wonky on the other.  Nothing for it but to ditch the hand-sewing and turn to the man and the machine.

The man is the measurer and calculator – absolutely essential if you are as dodgy with numbers as I am.  Here he ruminates and studies my wonky efforts.  It’s going to be tricky to get straight measurements here……. Stephen measuringBut with old-fashioned rulers and long metal tape-measures, we did get straightish white chalk lines on the quilt.  They are 6.5 inches apart.  I managed to machine it up – just!  I’m not sure my machine would have been able to cope with a larger or thicker piece of work.measuring toolsThe machine quilting worked surprisingly well, and it looks good – I now had a proper quilt! getting all quiltyTime for the edging.  I’d originally planned to use a single strip of brown and purple fabrics for the edging, but it soon became clear this wasn’t going to work.  The purples and browns planned for the red/orange side were far too strong and intense in colour for the lighter-toned blue/green side.  So I had to make a special binding, combining suitable toned colours for each side.sewing the bindingThen the bindings were hand-stitched onto the quilt.  sewing on the bindingSo what have I put in my quilt?  Well, all sorts really. There are fabrics that have come from clothes I have worn, my sisters and mother have worn, and my grandmother wore too.  There are little bits of projects I have started or done as test pieces.  The fabrics used include silks, satins, cottons, tweed, towelling and jersey.  (You can click on all these images to see the text more clearly).quilt story edited with textThere are new fabrics, fabrics that have come from much-loved clothes, fabrics that have just been in the family for so long that I don’t know where they came from.

I have added my name to the quilt and the date and place.  A little bit of Latin (and elsewhere Greek) since I was a student of Greek and Latin at university. There are knitting sheep at either end of my name – new fabric, representing my fleecy knitting interests.  Katherine's signatureThen there are the hearts.  I put the first heart in because it was a left-over from one of my mother’s sewing projects.  Mummy's original heartThen I realised that I had the perfect use for all those extra bits of fabric that I badly wanted to include but no longer had any room for.another fabric heartThis heart is from an exquisitely embroidered Serbian blouse – it’s probably 50 years old as my grandmother wore it before me.  The rest of the garment is yellowed and perished but the embroidered panels are still in good condition.Yugoslavia embroidery heart   There are bits of poetry too.  The words in this photograph  have come from one of Stephen’s poems. Stephen's poemThe squirrel in a go-kart in this photographic is fabric I used to make bedheads and pillow cases for my children when they were young.children's fabricsI don’t think my quilt will ever really be finished.  This bit of text that I’m currently working on acknowledges Stephen’s help with maths and measuring: Mathematics by Stephen!mathematics by StephenIt’s a great pleasure to lie in bed under the quilt and look at all the pieces, to remember stories and people, events and places.  What I did not expect to enjoy so much is the handle of a quilt – it is so light and comfortably squishy.  Perhaps I’ll just wear it for a while.Katherine huddled up in quilt

Union Chain Bridge

When our first visitors came to our new Northumbrian home, often their first request was to go to Scotland.  Easy peasy – we are just a few miles from the Scottish border so it’s a quick drive up the A1 and there you are, in Scotland.

However, we soon discovered that it was much more fun to take people who wanted a quick trip over the Scottish Border to the Union Chain Bridge. looking over the bridgeFirstly, we go because it is just beautiful.

It sits over the Tweed, a magnificent and beautiful river, and you are particularly well placed to admire the river from the bridge.Looking at river Tweed from bridgeSecondly, we go because it makes us laugh.

On each side of the bridge, the respective Scottish and Northumbrian councils have placed signs to ensure that you fully appreciate this is a border crossing and know which country you are in.

As you cross the bridge into England, there is a modest English sign. (Here James, our very first visitor in January 2011, helpfully points out the sign.)James and Stephen at England signOn the other side of the bridge, however, the Scots want to make sure you really appreciate that you’re in Scotland.  There’s a big, big sign – no two signs, actually,  (as Ellie and Jak point out here on their May 2012 visit).Ellie and Jak at bridgeAnd you’ll notice that the English, true to their proverbial reputation of reticence, make a simple statement of country. (Zacyntha’s first visit here, March 2011).Zacyntha and Stephen at the English signWhile the Scots come over all friendly and effusive and actually welcome you! (Ted and Helen’s visit, September 2011).Helen and Ted visitNot any more, they don’t!  Was it an irate English or Scots man that finally took matters into his own hands with this result?!broken Scottish signWhatever, it is now a rite of passage for first visitors to our Northumbrian home that we take them to the Union Chain Bridge.

Here’s Wenny and Jenny with Stephen on their April 2013 visit.Jenny and Wenny visitLater that year, in May, Katherine brought her mother, Mary to see the bridge.Mary's visitKatie was here in September 2011.Katie's visitAnd James brought Barbara here in March last year.Jam and Barbara's visitMike and Zacyntha also came in March last year.Zacyntha and Mike visitSo many happy visits! (and fun – really exciting to be standing on the bridge when a car drives over, and you are all of a wibble wobble.)

But back to our topic.  The third reason why we visit the Union Chain bridge is because it is a great bridge, a great engineering feat with a great history.

It is the oldest surviving iron suspension bridge in Europe.

It was built by Captain Samuel Brown RN in 1819-20.  During his time in the navy, Brown was working on the development of wrought iron anchor chains.  After he left the navy, he set up a manufactory in Millwall for the production of these chains.  He was still developing his ideas, and in 1817 he filed a patent for the production of flexible chain links for suspension bridges.  The opportunity to try out his new invention came when he was asked to build the Union Chain Bridge by the Berwick and North Durham Turnpike Trustees.  (And, completely incidentally, in the famous photograph of Brunel, the great man is posing in front of chains produced by Brown’s later company, Brown Lenox & Co.).

The flexible chain links are still evident now, but in very poor condition.rusted boltsThe bridge took less than a year to build so cost the Trustees only £7,700 – far far less in cost and far more quickly built than a traditional stone bridge.

It attracted great interest, not least among fellow engineers.  Robert Stevenson and John Rennie were here at its opening,  and both Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel also came to see the bridge.  A plaque on the English side, records Captain Brown’s name for posterity.plaque with Captain Brown's nameIt also records that additional strengthening work was done in 1902-3 with the addition of steel cables.  You can see the newer grey cables strung over the original green bars here.newer grey cables and old green bars belowWhat the plaque does not record, is that the bridge was thoroughly overhauled and renovated again between 1974 and 1981 – defective chain links were replaced with spheroidal graphite cast iron links.spheroidal graphite cast iron linksSadly, the bridge is once again urgently in need of repair.  ironwork rustingEverywhere you see the signs of decay, wear and tear.wooden joints perishingIndeed, the local councils are so concerned about safety that stringent warning signs lead up to the bridge. On the Scottish approach…Scottish approach to the bridgeAnd on the English approach … English approach to the bridgeOver the last few years, there has been worrying talk of bridge closure.   A horrifying thought for the locality!  The bridge isn’t only essential for drivers and walkers crossing the Tweed, it also carries cables transporting electronic data.

There were rumours of council bridge repair funds having been re-allocated into other budgets.  A friends’ pressure group was formed to push for repairs and proper appreciation of this fine bridge.  Their sign has joined the others on the bridge approaches.  (The friends have an excellent website with historic pictures and lots more information: http://www.unionbridgefriends.com )Become a friend signThe really good news – and extremely hot off the local press (just published in the February 19th edition of the Berwick Advertiser) – is that the Scottish Borders Council has now agreed to contribute £550,000 towards the restoration work, matching the funding already on offer from Northumberland County Council.  Now they can approach external funding sources, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, to secure the required balance of some £3 million (some say nearer £5 million).  The bridge needs a new suspension hanger system and upgraded parapets.

So – hopefully, it may indeed be fully repaired and in fine fettle to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its opening on 26th July 2020!looking up at the bridgeThere is yet another reason why we admire this bridge so much.  It is not called the Union Chain Bridge for nothing.  On each of the parapets, there is a motto:  Vis Unita Fortior.   Clumsily translated from the Latin, that reads: United strength is stronger.

I now have to come over all political.  Yes, I do believe united is stronger.  The United Kingdom is the better for its unity.  Europe too is stronger and better for the European Union. Many countries all over the world are better for the Commonwealth.  We are all the better for the United Nations.

Time to echo John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself.  Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.  As well as if a promontory were.  As well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend’s were.  Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.  Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.Vis unita fortiorThank you Ellie, for prompting this post on the lovely Union Chain Bridge!Ellie looking down from the bridge

The Museum of Scotland

I spent yesterday morning at Edinburgh’s Museum of Scotland –  very definitely my very favourite museum!

You walk into this huge light-filled space, and are drawn to look upwards.  You just have to gasp at the inventiveness and glory of it all.glass roof of museum of scotlandClimb up to the top floor, look down – and – it’s still amazing!looking down on ground floor of museum of scotlandOn the way up and down you will pass all manner of extraordinary things.looking over to upper galleries in museum of scotlandThe original museum was  designed by Francis Fowke ( who also designed parts of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and the Natural History Museum).  It opened in 1866.

There was a major redevelopment here between 2006 and 2011.  The curators took the opportunity to impress their 21st century take on the building and its collections.  This is what gives the fine old building its remarkable character.

Looking down into the well space,  you will see the light chamber of a lighthouse.light chamber from lighthouseGlance over at the far wall and there’s the jaw of a whale, pottery, metalwork.extraordinary collection of things in the museum of scotlandIt’s the serendipity, the juxtaposition of such extraordinarily unrelated objects that works so well here.  It reminds me of another favourite museum of mine, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

There are extraordinary bicycles,bicycle for fourSigns from old railway stations,old railway station signsCurious sea-creatures in glass jars,sea-creatures in glass jarsFantastic tea-pots – and lots lots more!teapots in museum of ScotlandOf course, these are only meant as tasters for what’s in the rest of the collections, in the rooms behind.  I saw far too many fascinating things to list them all here, so I will just mention two exhibits that I regularly visit.

These are some of the 17 miniature pine coffins, each containing a small dressed doll, found on Arthur’s Seat in 1836.  Nobody knows who made them or for what reason – lots of speculation.  They have obviously been made with great care.  I find them sad, and slightly disturbing – but so intriguing!Arthur's seat coffinsMy other choice couldn’t be more different – for a start it’s one of the largest items in the museum whereas the miniature dolls must be some of the tiniest exhibits. Newcomen engineThis is a rare surviving example of an atmospheric or Newcomen engine.  It was used to pump water from the coal mines at Caprington colliery until 1901 – and it still works!  It moves slowly and regularly and reassuringly – just as it must have been for those 19th century miners.  It is a magnificent beast, and I am drawn to it by its size and power and efficacy.

So, thank you very much, Museum of Scotland, for a wonderful morning’s entertainment and exploration.  I’ll be back for more before too long!

(Oh – and we had a delicious lunch in the basement Museum Brasserie too.)