Walls

Yes, you may well wonder where I am going with this blogpost ….

I confess to having become fascinated by walls since we moved up to the north-east of England …

It’s all down to building materials, of course.  When we lived in Mid-Devon, there was very little of the local sandstone, and what there was available was used for important and expensive buildings like the little St Lawrence Chapel which we looked after for Crediton parish church.Our own house (round the corner) and Victorian had nice brick garden walls in the garden itself …But once you ventured down the track behind the houses that the coal delivery man would have used, you were back to the older cheaper local stuff – cob. Cob is made up of anything to hand – mostly dung, mud and straw. It’s very vulnerable to the elements.  To protect the wall, it was preferably built on a small stone base, and roofed with slates  – both of which you can see in this picture. What you can also see in the picture is the render – that’s the modern casual way to repair a cob wall …I might once have been inclined to say there is no finer sight than a good cob wall (as you can see here on the shed wall at our B&B in Woolfardisworthy last damp summer) …Until I came to live in Northumberland where there is stone! Beautiful stone! Our own cottage (a converted steading) shows this particularly to perfection in the light of the rising sun a couple of days ago.  This is sandstone, abundantly and gloriously available here …And everywhere there are fine stone walls (sometimes with the odd little whimsical brick) …Which we took for granted until we saw where a local farmer had driven casually through a stone wall so as to deposit the manure from the barn in an inaccessible field …Elsewhere we saw how a collapsed wall had been – well, err, left collapsed …

Time takes me in mouthfuls; the teeth of the frost bit into my body here; here my mortar crumbles; the wind rubs salt into every wound  (says the poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland.) Yes, that’s just exactly what happens to the walls near the sea round here …Eventually the stones were cleared away leaving the bank alarmingly vulnerable …Walking up to Edin’s Hall Broch in the nearby Scottish Borders, we noted the irony of collapsed walls left to deteriorate and be replaced by barbed wire fencing … While the much more ancient stone walls of Edin’s Hall Broch itself were still standing well …Once we started looking at walls with these eyes, we saw a great deal that was both impressive and beautiful – and quite a lot that was sad. You cannot but be struck by the beauty of the wallflowers growing in the walls on Lindisfarne …Nor the mossy walls we found when on holiday near Lochgoilhead.  I am overgrown with insidious ivy …And – oh my goodness – how I love to see the willowherb growing in the walls along the East-Coast railway line …But these are the beginnings of damage. A young shoot breaking through the wall …Puts down strong roots …Without doubt a broken wall is an evocative sight, adding strongly to this picture of desolation and damp and mist in Scotland.  I am a desolate wall, accumulator of lichen …But a broken wall isn’t just picturesque – it can be downright dangerous. This is the wall separating the East-Coast Railway line from our local footpath – now, just think of the speed those trains travel! Why a hop, skip and a jump and I’d be over. I am unrepaired; men neglect me at their own risk …I was intrigued to see the anatomy of a good wall laid so clearly bare when walking on Lindisfarne recently …You can be sure that this hole (also on Holy Island) will be repaired properly. (I have to admit to being fascinated by this hole – what on earth caused it?  It’s very rare for a well-built wall to collapse like this.  I can only think a car drove into it.)Once – just once – we happened upon somebody repairing a wall (up near St Abbs).  This man deserves every accolade because it was a miserable day to be out working … After all, there is so much in a good wall to admire – and intrigue.  Can you see the faint line of stones in the centre of the wall sloping down to the left?  I can’t explain this …Sometimes falling render reveals old secrets, little unsuspected doorways …And even unconcealed doors in walls have a special lure …This door is set in the wall which surrounds the local Paxton estate …And walls of that size are in themselves a source of wonder – all that labour! We had to stop and admire the colour of the worn sandstone …At one point there must have been a rather fine entrance here. Just look at that worked stone at the top of the wall on the left!Repairs vary – the best are surprisingly successful (aesthetically as well practically). Just like this large brick patch   …Even painted walls have their beauty too. Every lump and bump is enhanced …And what a wall can do for a garden! This is Priorwood, in Melrose. These gardens nestle under the more famous Abbey, and my photo on a dull day doesn’t really do justice to them. But they are wonderful – and this large backdrop of a wall frames them perfectly  …Then I found myself in London, walking round Walthamstow, with walls on my mind. Oh, the variety of these little walls! All the houses have similar mouldings, porticos and bay windows – but the front walls!Just look at the creativity here!And here!So much personality expressed in just a little suburban wall!You’d think I’d have had my fill by now, but an unexpected birthday present last year opened my eyes to yet another aspect of walls – political walls … This is a fascinating book – I had no idea that so many countries had built – and were building – walls.  My business is to divide things, my duty to protect. It’s shocking – but I’m not going to dwell on it right now …I’m coming back to where I started – our home, and the walls around us. Because right there – on the boundary between our gardens and the next door farm – are some fascinating remnants of when this farm was a grander affair – coping stones.  There are only a few odd ones left now, and when these buildings were converted, they were shoved higgledy-piggledy amid whatever stone the builders could find.  Not very elegant, but a powerful reminder of what labour used to be.  These coping stones are rounded and would have been worked with the simplest of tools. Makes you think …My business is to divide things: the green ribbons Of grass from the streams of macadam …

All quotes from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s poem, The Wall.

Advertisements

A handmade starry Christmas

Earlier this autumn, my daughter and her husband arrived with a huge bag of fabric samples. They had been thrown out of a London college because they were out-of-date – but they were definitely far too good to waste!These were the sort of fabrics I’ve never worked with before – fabulous textured silks and satins …Extraodinary materials …Glitter to die for!And imaginative prints that I just loved – what I would give for a dress of that beautiful shimmery seahorse print!The thing is that most of these fabric samples were small – some very small indeed. Very tricky to know what I could do with such small pieces, but by chance I’d recently read a blogpost by Ann Wood on making little star folk and stars were on my mind …It seemed to me that these small glittery pieces of fabric would lend themselves so well to making those little starry folk …I got carried away.  I made quite a few – and some were different ….Some were pink …And there was even a cat star – yes, with genuine cat whiskers (no cats were harmed in this, I assure you – our cats considerately moult whiskers every now and then).Then it occured to me that I might be able to make beaded stars just as I had made beaded paisley botehs last Christmas. (I learned to make paisley botehs from the very talented Lorna of Chookiebirdie and wrote about my lesson in an earlier blogpost). So I set myself up in my woolly room with a tray of beads and some star templates (developed from Ann Wood’s original pattern) and these gorgeous little scraps of fabric …Tricky stitching …But the result was very pleasing …And I found it sort of addictive …As I stitched my way through November and early December, my bowls of stitched stars changed as stars went out to homes throughout the country, around the world … new stars were made, I got excited by different colours combinations … so much variety, so much potential …Still loads and loads of gorgeous fabrics sitting unused in my woolly room …I just had to make some GiveWraps … (These are handmade reusable present wrappers – you can find out much more about them in another of my old blogposts). Here I am working in one of my cousin Polly’s dragon prints into an orangey GiveWrap.The finished item here … the orange counterbalanced by some fabulously dark colours and very strong prints …Another orange one, but this one with soft blue-grey tones …Now for some black and brights … I loved working all these strong colours and patterns in together …And by complete contrast, here is a GiveWrap that is almost completely neutral tones … (featuring some fantastic Alexander Henry cats around the border and in the centre the Ghastlies around the dinner table).What a contrast this almost completely scarlet GiveWrap is! What a treat to work these strong patterns all in together …And of course for my mother (who only acknowledges the colour blue), a china-blue, gold and white GiveWrap …I have had such pleasure in all this making, but the icing on the cake (or far more accurately the hanging on the tree) is to see the stars and GiveWraps in their new homes …Dear blog readers, I would that I could send starry folk out to you one and all but I will have to make do with sending you stellar wishes for Christmas and the New Year! The world is full of such difficulties these days, so above all else, I wish that you may be richly blessing this coming New Year  – and that it be an easier year for so very many of us …

Potted gardening

I have been busy, busy, busy out in the garden over the last month, seizing every available wind-free moment to get out and tidy up.  As I’m a fair weather gardener (preferring not to be out when gusting westerlies are blasting around) that limits the available time somewhat.

Part of the drive to get on with the garden has been the need for pots! You see, we garden increasingly in pots, and over the last month the impetus has been to get the summer plants out and the bulbs in.

Let me take you through our gardening year and show you how we are increasingly becoming a (potty?) potted garden …

The first spring flowers – always a great lift – are in the pots on our patio.  These are February’s Iris Reticulata from a couple of years back. The plants here flower first because the patio faces south and is the most protected part of our garden, sheltered from all winds except the extreme (and very nasty) easterlies …Hard on their heels are daffodils, tulips, narcissi and forget-me-nots …Then – come April and May – we start serious potting.  The bulbs are all turfed out (to be replaced with fresh next year) and we pot up sweet peas (you can see them staked against the wall) and seeds …Seeds, seeds and more seeds …We grow poppies, cosmos, dahlias, nicotiana, nigella etc etc – all in pots. Early in the spring we have to accommodate these seedling pots and they find homes all around the garden. Here they are beside the raised veg beds …Meanwhile the main flower bed is looking just gorgeous with the plants that are growing in these little beds …The trouble is that these flower beds are just crammed with spring goodness, and there’s not much space for later flowering plants …Come mid-June we got an evil vicious blast of easterly wind, and this is what it did to the pot beside our front door!  One of the reasons we grow plants in pots is so that we can move them at such times, but alas, this one’s just too big to move …It also caught the bottom of the raspberry plants, but luckily the other pots are protected by the raised beds … Everything recovered of course, and in early July the pots took on a life of their own – bursting with growth, full of promise …The patio beds were really flourishing now  – and so were the pots around and about. Hard to tell which is which …The sweet peas we potted up earlier were doing very well in their protected spots beside the bench …There was a feeling of abundance and leisure about the place …The biggest problem with growing so much in pots is told in this picture which I rather think was taken with Ilsa in mind. But it’s the backstory that’s really important here – yes, the hose. All that constant watering! And this year – with hot hot days for so very long – called for more watering than usual …But while all is glorious around the patio, these little beds by the fence look tired and weary. It is now that the pots come into their own. Spread around in the flower beds, they don’t add much yet, but just wait – they will!In the pots round the patio we had some rather stunning black poppies in flower, and they demonstrate so well why we grow so many seeds in pots.  These seedlings need nurturing – sown in the flower beds they are often lost, eaten by snails, or just buried by other more dominant plants …Black poppies lose those sultry black petals all too easily, but when the plants are grown in pots we can easily take them in when strong winds are forecast …Come mid-August the pots in the flower beds are beginning to prove their worth with fabulous blasts of colour … This pot of mixed cosmos and poppy plants is my favourite …Look at the light on the sea behind these pots of poppies and nicotiana!This September the landscape was dominated by the rich brown of the ploughed field.  The hot hot summer had pushed everything ahead. Normally our view would be of golden fields for some time into September, but this year they are long gone.  With this view the pots are only just holding their own  …The Dahlias still look striking against the blustery sky …Happy gardening days for our little family! (this was before Ilsa’s attack that I wrote of in my last blog) What were Stephen and Ilsa talking about?!!And on the patio the sweet peas pots are still doing very well though everything else is looking a little lack-lustre …But come October it’s all change again – time to empty pots and plant up veg seedlings to overwinter in the greenhouse! These are spinach, lettuce and salad greens.  They won’t produce a great deal, but it’s still nice to be able to pick some fresh salad veg over the winter …And the other pots?  Well, they’re all sorted, emptied and tidied away – the glorious summer flowers consigned to the compost heap.

New spring bulbs have been planted, and here are the pots today, 24th November, – still a few lingering calendula and nasturtium flowers, but those pots at the back which look so dormant are – well exactly that!Watch this space come spring!

A cat crisis …

There we were – on the afternoon of Tuesday 11th September – quietly enjoying a balmy early autumnal afternoon in the conservatory with our two cats, Eggy and Ilsa. Some serious bird watching going on too.A few minutes later I went into the garden to water the plants, and Ilsa followed, ambling off somewhere …

Suddenly – noise – drama – and there down the path I could see Ilsa in the forecourt, but ….. under 5 dogs. There was a terrible din – they were all barking furiously while the dog-owner and his young son tried frantically to pull the dogs off her. I don’t really know how to convey in text my absolute panic and horror.  Suffice it to say I dropped everything I was carrying and tore out into the forecourt, yelling blue murder to those dogs and their owner.

Miraculously Ilsa escaped the dogs and fled over the neighbours’ wall, but then – perhaps in her panic – she continued into the nearby field.  So the dogs followed her – as did we all. At last we were able to pull them off her, and,  with her scooped up in my arms, get her away from the dogs.

At first it wasn’t clear how wounded Ilsa was, but she was breathing extremely fast, and I didn’t want to explore her wounds then and there for fear of making her more anxious.  So we had a brief sort of conversation with the dog-owner (who seemed as stunned as we) and his son, and set off for the vets.

The vets were lovely – professional and quick to give immediate treatment.  It transpired that Ilsa had been bitten on her rear right leg and her lower belly and was bleeding quite heavily from this wound.  However, they were particularly concerned that her breathing was so fast, and feared she might have also sustained a puncture wound on her lung.  So she was hospitalized for the night with antibiotics, painkillers, and tender loving care.

But she was OK.  Extraordinarily for such a dog attack, she hadn’t been ripped to shreds and left as meat.  The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that worse hadn’t occurred.  Had the dogs just been playing with her?

After leaving Ilsa at the vets, we went to see the dog owner. In part this was because I was aware that he’d had his young son with him who had been extremely distressed and tearful during the attack, and I wanted to give reassurance to this little boy that she would be alright.  I’m glad that we were able to do that because his mother reported that she’d put him to bed looking like he’d seen a ghost.  Poor little lad.

It transpired when talking to the dog owner that he’d been walking staffies and pit bulls and a chihuahua, and it had been a single disobedient staffie that caused the damage to our cat.  I really want to emphasize this because it’s not really what we are led to expect about such dogs. The dog owner immediately said he would pay the vet’s bill.

Of course, the problem only occurred because he was walking his dogs off the lead past our group of houses …..

The next day we brought Ilsa home.  It turned out that she hadn’t experienced any lung damage.  And we were reassured that her wound should heal fine – but take time as she was pretty bruised.

Oh, poor little Ilsa.  This what a cat does when it feels terrible – burrowing deeply into nice safe soft places (my unspun fleece basket) …Nevermind we thought – she needs to take her time as the vets said. But she’ll be back to normal soon.

But she wasn’t. Over the weekend she deteriorated and next week she was so poorly we headed back to the vets, only to be told that the antibiotics hadn’t worked and the wound was infected. So they whisked her back into surgery, put drains in her infected belly and gave her different antibiotics. Her poor belly looked awful …We’d been warned that suppurating drains make a terrible mess, so drugget preparation was necessary.  Our sitting room became a hospital ward (cat litter included) …Perhaps nastiest of all (to her!) she’d come home with the dreaded cone …Now a cone is horrible on all small animals, but is also a particular problem if you happen to have a very flat face.  Drinking required almost full immersion …Perhaps most worryingly she stopped eating, so we embarked on a program to syringe liquid high energy food into her mouth at regular intervals over the day and night. I made myself a bed in the sittingroom …Despite all this love and care, she was getting more and more unwell, so back we went to the vets as a second weekend approached.  We were at this stage more than slightly dazed from lack of sleep and worry about Ilsa and the growing vet bills (no, of course we didn’t have pet insurance) …

Horrific news.  Her wound was now so infected that the vets had to clean out a great hole of necrotic tissue (mercifully not on any of her organs) and she needed to spend the weekend at the vets on a drip with more antibiotics.  Her huge wound required sluicing out a couple of times a day.

We were allowed to visit Ilsa on Sunday in the surgery, and frankly it was almost more disturbing than not seeing her.  They were looking after her beautifully – faultless efficient medical care, very lovingly administered …But our little cat wanted to come home!We finally got to take her home on Monday, but had to return her to have her wound washed out every day that week.

The good news was that she didn’t require a cone, and coped very well with living with her horrible hole …How we welcomed the news after a week of regular expensive sluicing trips that she could have her wound stitched and stapled! It doesn’t look very pretty …But she really did seem to be so much happier – and so were we!Apart from anything else the dog owner had given us a decent contribution to the vet bills. It nothing like covered the whole expense of course, but at least made us feel that he recognised the damage that his dogs had done.She was starting to get back to normal pursuits, joining Eggy in the woolly room with me …And even taking tentative steps outside – tail up, a happy cat!Even back to a little mousing with Eggy …Whew!

Today Ilsa went to the vets and had the staples removed.  The stitches lying under the staples come out in a couple of days.  She’s been pronounced nearly back to normal – well, almost.  The bite damage to her leg is lasting and she will never quite have the mobility she once had with that leg – and there’ll be a scar!  But hey …

It’s been an overwhelming month.  Partly the horrifying initial attack – though that did not turn out be as bad as we originally thought – but even more the rollercoaster of worry about her increasing infections and the rising costs of veterinary care.  We felt out of control.

So we haven’t been out and about on long trips, but there has been quite a bit of quiet sewing and crocheting …

After my malaise earlier this summer which I wrote about in my last blog post, I was suddenly inspired to ask my cousin, Polly, if she had any of her fabric prints that I might embroider. (You can read more about her fabric printing in our earlier GiveWrap posts). These are some of the prints she sent me …I was very taken with the deep orange print with swirly yellow lozenges. It’s quite small, but once pieced together with similarly toned fabrics gave me an interesting start …The lozenges spread out …Until I reached the point where I am now with the piece propped up on a tall chest of drawers while I decide about the edging.  I can either go for the darker spotted fabric (on the right) or the lighter fabric (on the left).  What do you think?That embroidery was very pleasing to do – calming and meditative – and helped keep me occupied in difficult times.

I also crocheted these little Toft elephant friends for some little girls who have a new baby sister – a very belated welcome present to all the family.  When I wrote about my listlessness earlier this summer, somebody wisely told me that there is nothing like making presents for others to give you your mojo back.  Thank you, friend, you were quite right!What a relief to be back to normal!(Cats find mice in the darndest places!)

The old railway track walk

I find one of the greatest ordinary pleasures in life is to be doing the same walk through the months, and over the years.  Many might find this boring, but the opportunity to see small changes in places you know very well is – to me – a great delight.

Last year I wrote about our local beach walk in just such a manner, and in this blog I’m going to explore another favourite local walk of ours that takes us in a circle from our home at Seaview up the hill, along the ridge, and down the old railway track, coming back along the sea and the modern eastcoast railway line.The most challenging part of the walk is the very first part as you walk up the long hill behind Seaview. But there’s always something of interest.  Some wet winters the old duckpond reappears behind the farm buildings  …Then there is nothing for it but you must turn your attention to the hill … up and up it goes, – a gentle incline, but a long one. It’s always me struggling just this distance behind Stephen …Even on lush summer days it is an effort …So before long you can allow yourself to look back to enjoy the view (and catch your breath) …The view is always different, depending on the time of the year …Finally – oh glorious moment – you reach the top, and can pass through the gate and out on to the ridge. There’s a better track here because it is used by all the farm traffic …Looking down from this height on Seaview with the sea behind is uplifting. The field is full of stubble here, glowing in the half-light of a late December afternoon … In February the winter-sown crops are small (and you can just make out that puddle) …By June the green is lush and has intensified …And by August it’s golden …Earlier this year, the walk along the ridgeway was quite different from how we have ever known it before.  The evil Beast from the East had blown straight off from the sea, creating the most curious drifting snow shapes.  Conditions were so unpleasant that we didn’t get out for several weeks, but when we finally did in mid-March, the remaining snow was sculpted and very dirty. Meringue-like, I thought …Thank goodness, it is more often like it was yesterday – blue and green …This part of the walk takes us past the old radar station . And yesterday we stopped off to investigate …This is one of a series of radar stations operating up the entire east coast during WW2 (known as Chain Home Radar). And what a fine view of the North Sea this position commanded!There are two buildings here …A smaller one at the back which Stephen thought might have been an old engine room …And the larger one at the front which consists of several rooms – clearly now a good place for the local young to party …Such a change in mindset over the generations!  How differently the men working here in the 1940s must have felt to the people who visit nowadays – and that includes us …

The same generational change applies to the stone wall along this part of the route. It’s crumbling badly. Sadly it seems modern farmers often don’t rebuild walls, they just chuck away – or if pushed replace with fencing …Back to the next part of our route, walking along the road. Here it is several weeks ago when it was wet and watery as well as snowy …What a miserable grey day for a walk! But fascinating too.  We never know what we will find as we turn into the old railway track.  Sometimes there are huge muddy puddles here …On other occasions, we’ve been amazed and delighted by the ice patterns …Apparently this lovely phenomenon is known as cat ice …But when the Beast from the East visited, it left muddy puddles and deep snowdrifts in its wake …Looked almost impassable …No! He’s made it – so can I!This old railway track (known as the Scremerston Incline) was laid down about 1815, and ran from the Scremerston colliery, carrying coal across the land down to the coast, where it met the public carriage way (as you can see in this 1844 plan by engineering surveyors, Martin Johnsons and Fox). From there coal was transported to the nearby river Tweed and could be shipped off to purchasers in Europe and the south. What exactly is the magic of walking down old railway tracks?The history of the place, I wonder?  Here you can still see – just! –  the old stone sleeper blocks where the rails rested …Or is it the pleasure of walking  old level paths that remain even when tractors have churned up the mud … This photograph taken on our warm walk yesterday shows just how inviting it can be, with that blue blue sea calling you down …There is so often something special to see here, from a small clump of determined snowdrops on a cold winter’s day …To vibrant gorse in the early spring …And fragile harebells in late summer …I think I love it best in the autumn …When we walk down here to pick blackberries …And enjoy other fruits abundant in the old hedgerows …The track ends abruptly with our way blocked by a pile of stones …At this point we turn to the left and walk along the edge of the field with the old trackway running parallel to us (clearly marked in March this year by the snow drifts) …But at other times, you find yourself looking down into deep wild secret places …Not far on from here, the old railway track was subsumed into the main eastcoast railway line, as you can see in this 1922 Ordinance Survey map (actually surveyed 1856-60 not that long after the opening of the Newcastle and Berwick Railway in 1847).Now our walk us takes along the main eastcoast railway line with the North Sea just beyond …And if you’re lucky, you’ll get a modern train blasting its way past you!Our walk passes very close indeed to the main eastcoast railway line …Nothing sparks up a cold January walk like a speeding train!But there are other pleasures to this part of the route: playing silly games in the wintry light of a November’s day …And at the end of summer, there’s the willowherb looking amazing …And there’s scrumpying too …This solitary apple tree sits so close to the railway line!  We think it must be the result of casual flick of a discarded apple core as perhaps the Flying Scotsman sped past …We always inspect with interest the area round this drain.  It passes under the main eastcoast line, and was installed the spring after we arrived …The field drainage here can be very bad in winter (even now), with the water funnelling down the hill and reviving ancient waterways …In the spring of 2011, after heavy snows, so much water collected here with the snow melt that it threatened to wash away the eastcoast mainline train track. So Network Rail arrived in force to construct a new drainage pipe under the railway line.So muddy was it, they constructed a roadway – with of course road traffic signs!All long gone now, of course, and on an ordinary wintry day, it looks like this as Berwick appears in the distance … We’re coming to the end of our walk now …At the end of this field, we’ll turn up the hill and are on our way home …This muddy patch was the site of the old rubbish tip, and sometimes we find interesting bits and pieces in the mud here. So on  good day we’ll come home with treasure …But it’s a good walk, even without treasure!

With grateful thanks to:

  • Northern Northumberland’s Minor Railways: Volume Two.  Colliery and Associated Lines by Roger Jermy
  • Relics of War. A Guide to the 20th Century Military Remains in the Northumberlan Landscape by Ian Hall

Cats and birds

Alas, our sweet little kits have turned into ruthless killers …When Eggy and Ilsa arrived here some two years ago, they were completely unused to country ways – and pretty useless at birding. They didn’t quite get the concept of self-concealment …But, with practice, they got better at it …Our old cat, Poe, had never been very interesting in birding – she was a serious mouser, and would go out in all weathers …Bringing back special mouse gifts …When Eggy and Ilsa arrived, she even gave a masterclass in the catching of small furry animals.  I think this was the first time Ilsa (on the right) had ever seen a shrew, and she was absolutely fascinated …And Eggy and Ilsa learned to become dedicated mousers, proudly …leaving appreciative gifts …And tackling their mousing with enthusiasm, even in tight corners …Because Poe had shown such lack of interest in the birds, we’d always felt free to put food on the path as well as the hanging feeders on the house wall.  This meant we got a range of birds into the garden who could only feed at ground level. Through winter …spring …and summer …we continued to feed the birds on the ground.  Eggy and Ilsa watched from various vantage points. Upstairs windows …And the conservatory offered particularly good view points …But alas, last year they shocked us out of our naïveté, making us realise how stupid we were to think they were too slow and silly to catch birds.  They brought in a beautiful song thrush. We managed to get it away from them, and set it loose in a safe place, only to come upon it dead later on.We were deeply upset – particularly (and irrationally I admit) because it was such a beautiful bird.  We’d seen it feeding on the path, and had taken great pleasure in its presence in our garden.

So Eggy and Ilsa got collars with bells on them – and not just standard bell-collars. I added extra bells. They were very good about them, submitting to having them put on every morning before they went out.  And – by and large – the bells worked.Eggy and Ilsa seemed content to get their kicks from bird tv …So this spring we expected to do the same.  But, of course, it’s been horrible weather, what with the Beast from the East and its vicious relatives.  The cottage has been truly snowed under …And some days it was nigh impossible to even see out …The cats really didn’t want to go out at all …And we were able to feed the birds lavishly – after all never had they needed food the more than in these horrible recent snows …We could tell from the footprints that we were hosting a great company – and some rather large birds …During all this cold and wintry period, we were delighted to have a family of four yellowhammers visiting us regularly – we’d never had yellowhammers here before, but how pleasing that we were to be able to sustain them through this harsh spring … (this photo below actually taken in the sun on Easter Day) …But one day, we came back from a long day out in Edinburgh to find this horribly unwanted gift.  Aaaagh – such a little beauty, such a loss, especially as we know that yellowhammers are on the RSPB Red list of dangerously declining populationsTime to face the facts: our little cats are actually very clever killers – that is what they are programmed to be, and we were being very stupid in ignoring it.  Just look at Eggy hiding in wait for birds to feed on the path …Can’t see her?  Well, come along the path with me, and you can see how perfectly she is placed to pounce on any unwitting bird …So we’ve put planks in place to make it harder for the cats to spring onto the path …And we’ve moved the bird food, no longer spreading it on the path, but rather along the edge of the flower bed, which with a small shrubbery nearby is much more in the birds’ natural comfort zone anyhow …These are very poor pictures, taken on a miserably cold Easter Monday through upstairs windows, when snow and sleet were tipping down, but there are our little yellowhammers feasting away in their new feeding ground. If you enlarge the pics you will be able to see how many of these little birds there are. The young are far less yellow than the parent birds …The amazing thing is that in the few nice days midweek, the yellowhammers started to appear in abundance in our garden …At one time we counted 17 yellowhammers feeding there!Could it be, could it just be, that during that first vicious attack from the Beast from the East, when we’d just noticed the yellowhammer presence in our garden, they were nesting in the locality, and it is those young we are seeing in the garden now? I haven’t yet been able to find out dates for yellowhammer first spring nests, so I just don’t know.

So, wish us luck – it isn’t easy accommodating cats and birds, and nurturing both.  We now shut the cats in when we go off on long days out – they don’t like it at all, but if it will help keep a few more of our little yellowhammers alive, it’s definitely worth it!

Making a Northumbrian piper’s plaid

When we moved to Northumberland in 2010, one of the things on Stephen’s list was to learn to play the Northumbrian pipes.  I won’t go into the Northumbrian pipes in detail (you can find more about them here), – just suffice it to say that unlike the Highland pipes which are blown, the air in the Northumbrian pipes is produced by elbow action. And they aren’t easy to learn to play!

(But they produce an enchanting light sound. According to organologist Anthony Baines, they are “perhaps the most civilized of the bagpipes …”)

Most impressively Stephen did learn to play them, and joined the Alnwick Pipers group, later setting up a local group, the Spittal Pipers.  These groups play for pleasure, and also at shows and exhibitions. In 2016, for BBC Music Day, the Spittal Pipers were asked to play on the Union Chain Bridge. They assembled early on an exceptionally cold June morning …All wearing their fine Northumbrian plaids – bar Stephen, who didn’t have his own, so was lent one … err, a lady’s one.  The difference is that the lady’s plaid is a short shawl, while the gents wear a magnificently long piece which sweeps right round the body.This year I decided it was time to give him his own plaid, and approached a fellow member of the Tweed Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers, Janis Embleton of Flight Weaving for help because I knew she’d woven a shepherd’s plaid before.

However, Stephen didn’t need a thick plaid designed to keep you warm and dry in all-weather shepherding work.  He need a formal  Northumbrian plaid to match in with the other plaids in the Spittal Pipers’ group. So we turned to Stephen’s fellow piper, Lyndon, for advice – and the loan of his plaid.  Here he is being fitted in Lyndon’s plaid as a guide for length …When we knew exactly what we wanted (more or less a copy of Lyndon’s) and had a set of measurements for Stephen’s height, I went back to Janis to ask her to make the plaid.  She came up with a most generous plan.  She would weave the plaid, and I would finish it off – tassel, wash and pleat …

Janis works on a vintage Ulla Cyrus Loom, passed on to her by a fellow weaver some years ago.  To my ignorant eyes, it is a most beautiful – and very complicated – piece of woodwork. Parts are worn smooth and darkened from repeated handling, but it carries a story of the love and care it received from one weaver – and now another.

She sent me these fascinating photos of the loom when it was first set up to weave the black and white Northumbrian plaid. My goodness, what meticulous hard work is involved in setting up the loom for a large piece of woven cloth!Later, she welcomed us to her studio to see how the weaving was progressing. By this time there was a substantial piece of cloth already woven …She invited me to have go with the shuttle, and I can assure you it’s not as easy as it looks!I was struck by the complexity of the loom – all those interconnections …And in many ways, it felt as though there was an organic integrity between loom and weaver …When the plaid was completed, I visited again for a lesson in tassel-making. First Janis showed me how to remove the cotton bands which edge her weaving …Then the fringing was trimmed to the length we wanted …Starting to make the tassels with her dinky little tassel-maker …I finished the tassels off at home, and then came the terrifying moment when I had to wash the plaid …Despite testing for colour run before she started work, Janis had discovered the black wool was leaching colour onto her hands, so I was advised to handwash the plaid first in cold water – it did indeed come out quite black …Then it went in the washing machine for a 30 degree wash. Scary! How relieved I was to have it out blowing on the washing line, soft, clean and slightly shrunken!Now for pleating. Lyndon’s plaid was pleated with narrow folds over the shoulders, fanning out to wider folds at the hem of the plaid. Hard to find a clean floor long enough to lay out such a huge piece of fabric …Tricky – especially when I got help …Now for some very careful pinning and tacking all the way down the pleats.  I copied Lyndon’s plaid and machined the pleats in place at judicious intervals (over the shoulders) …Finally the whole process was finished off with some very damp ironing using a white vinegar/water solution.  I discovered this pleating trick from a very helpful website on historical sewing .  Apparently this was the old-fashioned method to secure pleats in place.  (My solution was 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water.) And yes – the room did smell like a fish and chip shop, but the smell has now vanished!Time for a fitting. Here’s my Northumbrian piper in proper piper’s plaid! Just magnificent! And here he is playing the pipes!This has been such a happy project.  The plaid isn’t just a beautiful piece of work by a very skilled weaver, it’s a record of history – and in particular, for Stephen and me, the lovely folk who helped bring it together.  Thank you so much Janis for so generously allowing me to work on this project with you – it truly made it memorable.  And we can’t thank Lyndon and his wife Heather enough for their patient advice every time we needed to consult on some technical aspect of pipers’ plaids.