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.

A summer of Covid times…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lockdown Life

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

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

Seaside gardening

I guess I should be honest … I’m really writing a gardening blog because – on a cold winter’s day – I badly need to remind myself how lovely summer can be in the Northern Hemisphere … Not that our garden has always been as it appears above … We moved to an unkempt wilderness, and, since we neither of us had any previous experience of coastal gardening, we turned to the authorities …

I treated myself to a copy of Mrs. Bardswell’s book on Sea-coast Gardens and Gardening …Her references made me laugh! Lady Battersea’s Overstrand garden is really rather grander than is relevant to our little Northumbrian coastal cottage garden.

… Salt airs stir leaves in broad plantations, red and white Roses stud smooth lawns, Lilies flower happily in the half-shade of trees, and pond-flowers are blooming in sylvan lake and pool. …

I think not for us!

But she did make valuable points, among them the importance of plant protection from the prevailing winds.

Success in sea-coast gardening is really a question of shelter. That must never be forgotten. If natural shelter be lacking, however, it is not difficult to build it up.

My elderly copy of Scotts Nurseries catalogue (veritably a gardening bible!) says much the same …

Once a hedge is established to keep out, or even filter, the drying salt-laden sea-winds many tender plants will flourish in our equable coastal climate …

Perhaps the most touching (and expert) advice came from my Aunty Jilly, here enjoying her lovely Edinburgh garden …These are her recommendations for planting for shelter … (somewhat disconcertingly she refers to First and Second Line of Defence as though preparing for a military siege) …So we did indeed plant for shelter – but from the prevailing and often boisterous westerly winds … hollies (variegated for effect), sea-buckthorn, rosa rugosa, ribes …Making a solid protective border of shrubs which the birds and smaller plants love … On the coastal side – looking south-east to the sea – we actually removed the existing defences … taking down the five foot fence so that we could see the sea …Sometimes we pay the price for this folly – as when vicious easterlies sweep in and burn … Just look at the bottom of those raspberry plants … But we can see the sea!We also got advice and inspiration from another source.  A local garden, designed by the wonderful Gertrude Jekyll …Lindisfarne Castle is just over the sea from us – it’s that bump on the horizon, glimpsed here in the soft glow of the evening light …In 1906 Gertrude Jekyll stayed at Lindisfarne Castle a couple of times while the architect, Edwin Lutyens, was also there. Lutyens had been commissioned to renovate the Castle by its owner, Edward Hudson.  It was Hudson’s idea to turn the old walled vegetable garden into a tennis and croquet lawn and develop the valley between it and the Castle into a pretty water garden.  In the event the pretty water garden never materialised – and the old vegetable garden became the Castle Garden where gardening wizard Jekyll worked her magic … We first visited the garden in the winter, so what struck us were the bones of the structure …Even in the winter it was clear that stachys lanata (aka lamb’s-ear) was the plant to grow in this locality … It does indeed flourish very happily in our garden. I think I’d go as far to say that it is one of the most contented of our plants … self-seeding happily … And that splash of silver sets off the other plants so well …Last summer we visited the garden for the first time in the summer months – July.  Normally we avoid the Castle and Garden at that time of the year as it is so busy.

It was indeed busy when we visited. But it was worth it.  And somehow the Garden felt very comfortable with all this busyness – perhaps because it is so fabulously beautiful and everybody was enjoying it so gently.

This is the view looking from the Garden back to the Castle – presumably the area where Hudson wanted his water garden …And if you angle your head a little bit more to the right you can see the mainland over the sea …Great swathes of colour everywhere …But the structure still strong and clear …Masses of sweetpeas …A bench from which to admire the view …Is it folly to take you now from this wonderful wonderful garden to our little patch of Northumbrian heaven to show you what we learned from Gertrude Jekyll … ?! Probably, but I’m going to risk it.

We don’t actually grow that many of the same plants as Jekyll and following gardeners have planted in the Lindisfarne garden. Sweet peas, yes, we do grow them, and they flourish very happily …

Sunflowers can be found both in Jekyll’s garden and ours … Undoubtedly the strength of our garden lies in the poppies which flourish all summer thanks to repeat sowings. They do grow poppies in the Lindisfarne Castle Garden (look behind that bench above) but not in the numbers that we do … Ours are not exclusively red … The other striking feature in Jekyll’s garden is that she’s not afraid of colour – great splashes of it!  Nor are there coy toning colours. Just glorious perhaps vulgar-in-some-eyes colour …We aren’t afraid of colour either.  Look at the strident yellow here: the broom echoing the local farmer’s rape field behind the fence …I think Jekyll would approve of the riot of spring colour provided by the wallflowers … And a little later in the year … lilies, alchemilla mollis, pinks, calendula … (and the ubiquitous poppies) … in vibrant clashing glory … Later in the year too when the crocosmia and loosestrife clash comfortably before the harvested field … In my opinion the most important thing for a seaside seaview garden is a good bench …And I’d like to think that Gertrude Jekyll would agree …

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.

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