Field of the Cloth of Gold

As the seasons pass, the fields outside our house change colour – sometimes it’s because of the weather, sometimes it’s because of the crops growing there.   Sometimes it’s just the light.  It is extraordinary how different our view can be because of this colour change.

We spent our first night here in July 2010, and this was the view looking from our home out down the coast to Bamburgh Castle.  Gold – and a rainbow to boot!  The crops – wheat, barley, oats – were ripening.  One field had already been harvested and ploughed up for winter sowing.  You can see the reddy-brown soil of the locality.  But the overwhelming colour and feel of the place when we first arrived will always be gold for me.golden fields and rainbowBy October, the fields were green.  The farmer had sown winter crops, conditions had been benign, and the young crops were growing well.  There were still plenty of small creatures about for our cat Poe to hunt.Poe exploring green fieldsThen in November, and on through the winter, we got snow.  Sometimes, it was a white out.snow white outSometimes, it was that blue-white, picking up the colour from the brilliant sky-blue and sea-blue.blue white of sky and sea and snowIn other years, we’ve know that sort of semi-snow state where it’s not white or green or brown.Sunrise on snowy fieldsEarly spring is an intense green – and blue.  I just love days when the forget-me-nots pick up the blue of the sea like this.  (Think it’s a hare in the field).Hare running on green fieldAnd the plants get greener and bigger.   Field, garden, lawn – all an abundant luscious green.abundant luscious greenThen the crops start to  change in colour – they’re on their way to gold via a sort of fresh lime-green.   At the same time, stronger and bolder colours take off in the garden.lime green fields and the odd poppyThen back to gold again.Poppies in front of golden fieldOn light evenings the colours shift. Some nights a dense blue dominates.deep blue of moonlight Golden fields are harvested.Harvesting golden fieldsThe stubble turns a softer faded gold.Golden stubble fieldOne year the farmer had planted broad beans in the field nearest our house.  These were left until late, late in the season when the beans were hard as pellets, and then they were combine-harvested like the other crops.  Apparently dry beans such as these are sold to Pakistan.  A dirty scuffed brown view for a long time.Dirty scuffed bean plantsThere’s also spring muddy-brown , with just the hint of green as the new shoots burst forth.  We had had heavy rain just before this picture was taken, and then hot sun resulting in mist steaming off the fields.steaming brown fieldsThis is the best brown – the rich chocolatey brown of the freshly ploughed field.Chocolate brown field being ploughedIn the right light, a field will take on a completely different colour.extraordinary golden evening light on fieldThis year, the farmer has planted rape for the first time (that we have known).  It has just come into flower.  A Northumbrian field wearing a cloth of gold.field of the cloth of gold and double rainbow

Family treasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Whitney.

Duddo stone circle

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

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

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

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

My story quilt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black (and White) Dog

My father died earlier this week.  It is deeply deeply sad, and he is much mourned by his family and friends, but it was also a blessed release.  He had been unable to walk for some years, and towards the end we discovered that he was suffering from Lewy Body disease.

This is a surprisingly little know neurodegenerative dementia considering that at least 5 percent of 85 year olds are thought to suffer from it.   It shares the mental symptoms of confusion and loss of memory with Alzeimer’s, but the really distinguishing feature for many of those suffering from this disease are the visual hallucinations. For many these are visions of animals.  In my father’s case, it was a black dog.

I don’t think the black dog was really surprising because there had been a black dog in the family several years ago.  Brackler was of mixed  Springer and Labrador parentage, and originally came to live with Hugh (my first husband) and me in Devon in 1978. He was a fine dog – almost completely black, apart from a white flash under his chest.  Apart from this, he could easily be mistaken for a pure Labrador.Proud Brackler 1980 Sanctuary LodgeHowever, he had inherited a wild untamed need-to-explore trait from his Springer mother, and when my son was born in 1980, I couldn’t cope with Brackler, so he went to live with my parents in Kent.  Memorably, Hugh and my father met to pass Brackler on to his new owners at Guildford Cathedral – a place forever etched in my father’s mind as completely miserable because Hugh was so extremely upset to have to part with his dog.RHE Brackler 1987 BSBrackler went on to live an extremely happy life with my parents.  When they moved to Budleigh Salterton in 1987, he took to amazing sea swimming.  He would swim the entire length of the bay from the red cliffs at the west of the beach to the River Otter without break.  A very powerful dog.  My father adored him, and grieved terribly when he died in 1992.  (They went on to have another dog, Pellow – featured in the photo below.)9 RHE Pellow 1994 BudleighA couple of days after my father’s death, one early afternoon,  we were visited by a black and white collie dog running round the Seaview properties.  It was racing around, up into our gardens and off into the fields – a sloppy walker I thought, not walking with their dog conscientiously.

But later in the afternoon, by teatime, it was back – in our garden, nosing around the fat balls that we crumble up for the birds to eat on the path. It ran away when I went up to it – clearly shy and anxious. It had a broken leather lead round its neck, looking as though it had been tied up and pulled free.

It kept on running off into the fields and back into our garden – was clearly hungry. So I went to our neighbours’ house to get Jan and Craig to help me catch it.

They are very experienced dog-owners who originally hailed from Gateshead, but have been tempted to Spittal like us because of the beauty of the place.  Jan says she’s half gypsy. She’s a carer, and if I was old, ill or dying, I would like her to care for me – she’s a wonderfully warm woman.

Anyhow, we couldn’t catch the dog. It kept on running off into the fields – miles and miles away, we could just see the small black dot. We were worried because we are quite close to the main eastcoast railway line. Then it would come careering back.

Eventually, Jan got close enough to give it some food. It scoffed everything really quickly. She managed to stroke it – then it bared its teeth, so she left off.

We rang the police – but they won’t help as they no longer have facilities to house lost dogs. I rang the local council dog warden. Somebody else locally had reported the dog. They also wouldn’t help – unless we caught it, and then they would come and take it away.

We just couldn’t catch it, so eventually we tempted it into our greenhouse with food and water, and left a blanket in there for it to sleep in. The idea was that in the morning we hoped to find it asleep, shut the greenhouse door and phone the authorities.

As we hung around in the twilight trying to tempt the collie in, I told Jan that my father had just died. Lightbulb moment! “That’s why the dog is here! It’s come from your dad, he wants you to know he’s alright!”

Stephen and I had a small chuckle about this later in the evening – but it felt curiously comforting.

In the morning the dog was gone

I’m with Hamlet on this one:  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

RIP RHE, born in Melbourne’s Surrey Hills, 9th March 1926; died in England’s Surrey Hills, 31st March 2015.RHE snow 1966

One of my favourite photographs of my father, taken in the garden of No 5 embassy house, Tokyo, during the snowy spring of 1967.  Behind is the Diamond Hotel which featured strongly in our childhood dinner conversations as we could see it very clearly from the dining room, and my father would regularly comment on the seasons with the (to me) immortal phrase:” Soon we won’t be able to see the Diamond Hotel any more.”  It was code for spring approaching.  It is lovely to remember him smiling, happy and having fun!

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Union Chain Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the oldest surviving iron suspension bridge in Europe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to echo John Donne:

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

Searching for Sanderlings

Yesterday we walked from Beadnell to Low Newton (some 3 miles as the crow flies).  Beadnell mapThis is a beautiful walk any time of the year.  Yesterday the conditions were just perfect –  no wind, temperature about 5 degrees, tide probably at its lowest.  So we had the huge expanse of Beadnell Bay to ourselves for our walk to the pub at Low Newton. It’s one of the beaches that Northumberland justifiably is so proud of.  Huge expanses of sand and sea and sky.
Best foot forward and looking south to our destination with a glimpse of Dunstanburgh Castle beyond……..best foot forward to DunstanburghLooking back to Beadnell and its limekilns ……..Looking back to BeadnellOthers had been there before us, but we felt it was ours ……Stephen following tracksDifferent sand patterns all along the beach.  These are at the Beadnell end – is the black sand coal (coal fields run along the edge of Northumberland’s coastline) or broken mussel shells?black sand patternsFurther along small pebbles and shells make a pointy pattern – it’s as though the beach is wearing a crown …..crown of sandAnd a wavy pattern in the sands as you look along the beach to the dunes …wavy patterns in sandIn some spots there was evidence of a recent parliament of fowls…evidence of parliament of fowlsNot really a shelly beach (my favourites) but just enough Banded venus shells to keep me happy.shells and sandTime for a coffee break.  The retirement thermos comes out (these have to be counted back in carefully since we left one behind on one expedition.  A Hanrahan – as one might say – “I counted them all out and I counted them all back.”  You may have to search recent Falkland Island history to pick up the allusion!)  thermos flask of coffeeAt the end of the bay, we climbed up the dunes for the walk around Football Hole (such a great name!). Looking inland you can just see the snowy Cheviots in the distance, and a reviled wind farm interrupting the view. (There is much ill feeling in Northumberland about wind farms – barely surprising since many have been sited in iconic situations).windfarms in distanceWe clambered up a bony protrusion of Whin Sill.  (Whin Sill is the local name for the ignaeous rock dolerite that is so important a feature of the Northumbrian landscape.  The Castles of Bamburgh and Lindisfarne are built on Whin Sill protrusions, and the Romans incorporated it into some of the most dramatic parts of Hadrian’s wall).sheep watching warilyFrom the top we could now see Dunstanburgh Castle more clearly.sheep and Bamburgh CastleBut more importantly, we could also see our destination!  This is the tiny village of Low Newton.  The old fishermen’s cottages are clustered round a green straight up from the beach.arriving at Low NewtonAnd here is the Ship Inn!  It’s a very popular haunt nowadays – understandably as they have good food and the beer is very fine (they have their own brewery).  As for location – well, it’s to die for, centrally located right on the Northumbrian seashore between Dunstanburgh Castle and Beadnell Bay. Ship InnInside, there’s a fire, and food – and drink!  Perhaps best of all, we’ve timed it just right and the pub is almost empty – we can get seats right next to the fire!  That’s a rarity – it’s a very busy pub.Pub - pint and fireStephen enjoying the Ship Inn Brewery’s 4.2 % Squid Ink.  Apparently it’s “A classic stout with hints of espresso coffee, dark chocolate, figs and dates.”Stephen with pintBut the sanderlings, I hear you say – what about the sanderlings?!!!

Well – we did see sanderlings!  Oh – yes – we did see sanderlings! Sanderling sightingNow I want to explain why these little birds are so very special to us.  We knew nothing of them until we came to live in Northumberland.  When we first saw them on Spittal beach, we were enchanted with their racing and running in and out of the waves.

Derwent May, writing in the Times of January 2011 tells us more about them.  “On long sandy beaches right now you may see small, white wading birds chasing the withdrawing waves.  They pick up tiny creatures that are floating in the water, then run back very fast to avoid the next incoming breaker that threatens to crash over them.  To and fro they sprint, their legs like clockwork.  These sanderlings, little birds of the sand, have a special adaptation for their way of life: they have no hind toe that drags in the sand, so that they can run more quickly.” They are the only bird that has this adaptation.

(Disappointingly, WordPress won’t let me upload my little video which demonstrates this quirky seashore action without ungrading to Premium for £70 – so I’ll just add in some pics from previous Beadnell visits.)sanderlings on beadnell beach 2Derwent continues: “They nest in Siberia, very near the North Pole, and some fly as far as South Africa in the autumn.  But a few get no farther than Britain and Ireland, spending the winter here.  They like the sandy beaches … in northeast England …”

Sensible little birds – so do we!  We often see them over winter on our local Spittal beaches, but this year I haven’t seen any yet.   You have to catch them at the right time on the tide – food is most plentiful when the tide is very low.

(Here they are at the mouth of the Tweed with the Berwick lifeboat station in the background, photographed in January 2013).Sanderlings at the mouth of the Tweed Mark Cocker describes them more succinctly in his magisterial Birds Britannica: “Sanderlings are the Keystone cops of the British seaside…The manner in which they first scurry away from an incoming surge, then instantly reverse to follow it back out, also has something of the quality of those speeded-up cop chases popular in the silent-movie era…Yet the comic note belies their heroic migration…There is evidence to suggest …a round trip of 17,700 miles.”

Wow! little sanderlings – that is truly amazing!sanderlings on beadnell beach 1As we retraced our steps back to the Beadnell car park, we saw many more fascinating birds – turnstones, dunlins, curlews, gulls, oystercatchers – even a rare and beautiful great white heron having a fine time, feasting on local delicacies in the Brunton Burn.

But nothing made our day quite as much as the Keystone Cops of the British seaside: the sanderlings!

However, we did come home with treasure…treasures from the beach

Let me introduce you to Poe

Poe in Crediton garden, hiding behind nasturtium plantPoe and her sister Monet came to live with us in our Crediton home in 1999.    Monet and Poe as kittens, sitting on old knitting machineThey were sweet little kittens, and we loved them ……Young Monet and Poe cuddled up to each other while Poe washes Monetand they loved each other too.Monet and Poe cuddled up to each otherBut that love did not last.  Before long, they preferred to keep an unfriendly distance from each other.Poe and Monet on benchMonet was an anxious cat, and had some very difficult problems so eventually she had to leave us for the great cat home in the sky.  RIP Monet.Monet lying in the sunCuriously, with Monet’s departure Poe found her voice.Poe making her voice heardWe weren’t at all sure how Poe would take to our move from balmy Devon to the windy open spaces of Northumberland.Poe on garden fence looking out to the seaShe loved it! – and took to mousing with such enthusiasm that even when the snows came she was out there, catching mice.Poe outside with mouseShe liked to bring the mice in to play with – but often lost them so they ran off to make new homes inside.Poe inside with mouseRecently high blood pressure caused her retinas to detach and she went completely blind over night.  Luckily medication (very expensive!) means that she can now see again.Poe's damaged eyes after collapsed retinasThese are a few of her favourite things …
hogging the best spot in front of the fire…Poe in front of firedrinking Jammy’s cereal milk ….Poe watching Jammy eat cereallying in the sun…….Poe in woolly room sunlightdoing the fence walk with you know who ….Poe doing fence walkrolling around in a smelly man’s shirt……..Poe smelling Jam's smelly shirtwatching bird tv (broadcast live from our woodshed)!……Poe watching Bird tvand her Christmas mouse! Poe and her Christmas mouseOh Poe – we love you!

The Museum of Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Windy, windy, windy-blow! *

We’ve just embarked on a period of real winter storms.

They started yesterday, gathering  full momentum over the evening and night.  By the time we went to bed just before midnight, they were into full rampaging mode.  I lay awake and marvelled at the sound.  Yet, curiously, when I woke in the early hours, the storms had completely abated – no sound at all.

But they are back now.

Our house sits on an east-west axis; to the north lie the old steading courtyard and more buildings; to the south are the open fields, sea and the view down the coast to Lindisfarne.View from our garden to the castles and seaWe are protected from the brunt of the nasty cold Northerlies, North-easterlies and North-westerlies by the rest of the steading buildings.  Westerlies stream along the length of our house and are funnelled by the shape of the buildings out to sea.

It is the dirt-laden, shifty Southerlies that we hate most.  They blast over the flat coastal lands before the house, and slam into our buildings.  You might think they would be balmy, warm and good-natured (and of course some are), but most are edgy and difficult.  Our windows are grimy from the Saharan dust they carry.  And if they are really boisterous and bad-tempered, the gusts will slam down our chimney and can put out a blazing fire with one casual puff.

Right now the winds are all over the place.  The only common factor is that they are powerful.  They find out every little nook and cranny and we are cold, cold, cold.  I sit typing looking just like a comfy old rotund teddy-bear because I have so many layers of clothing on.

Our bedroom is right under the eaves so bedtime when the winds blow does not mean peace and quiet!  In fact it can be blowing a gale and we are hardly aware of it. At other times the slates rattle persistently. It all depends on the wind direction. It seems to be when the wind strikes the roof obliquely rather than sideways on or straight at it.

Last night we went to bed with 40mph winds and it was hard to get to sleep with all the rattling. By morning the wind had not abated but had swung round further to the north and we were hardly aware of it.Sloping bedroom roof right under the eavesWhen we first arrived here, – indeed our first night here! – a storm blew up, and the winds lashed against the roof.  I lay in bed and thought how mad we had been to come to this dreadful, frightening place.  Now I lie in bed and marvel at the sound.  Often the winds just grumble round the roof.  Nights when they complain like last are extraordinary – and to be wondered at.

Not that I always think that.  I have discovered that I can take about 3 days of windy noise, and then I have had enough.  Please please oh go away oh noisy wind.

For the moment the thing is to keep warm and busy.

*technical term of Stephen’s