Silly babies, squabbling teens

Our garden is full of birds!  The first crop of fledglings have arrived and they, together with their exhausted parents, are everywhere, greedily looking for food (and water). starlings at water bowlIt wasn’t like this when we first moved here.

We arrived some five years ago to a cottage that had been converted from an old steading.  After the conversion, it had been let to temporary tenants.  Nobody had put energy or effort into the garden.  We inherited a wild grassy field of a garden.wild gardenWhen we had tamed our wilderness (mown the lawn), we had nothing in the garden but grass – nowhere secure for birds to shelter bar the one clump of grass we left (on left of picture below, just inside the fence).Seaview with the wild lawn tamedThat winter birds came and went as it snowed and snowed.  They must have been very hungry – but none stayed.  How could they – there was no shelter in our garden.  winter birdsBut as we dug beds and things began to grow, the birds began to visit. bird feedersbirds on gutteringOur mornings start with the ritual of putting fat balls and bird seed out for the birds.  Some goes in birdfeeders hanging on walls and fences, and some is scattered on the path (we grate the fat balls up).

This is to cater for all tastes.  Some birds like to graze on the ground…(this is a family of collar doves that came for a few days and then moved on….same with the crow.)  birds on the pathSome eat at the feeders…starling on feederThere’s a great deal of argy-bargy, particularly at the feeders.  Remember these are young uns, learning how to cope with just about everything by themselves.several birds on feederThey don’t only have to learn to share the feeders – there’s the drinking water/bath tub as well.bird washing itselfOne of my favourite ladies, this doe-eyed Blackbird teen, hesitantly approaching the cat drinking water.  It’s all the same to them (provided the cat isn’t around, of course).young lady blackbirdWe are especially fond of the wagtail family who have been returning to spend their summers here for several years.wagtail in gardenBut we are disappointed that the wagtails have not chosen to nest in our woodshed this year (as they have for the two previous years.  Their babes were just a hoot.)wagtail chicks in woodshedLast year the blackbird also nested in the woodshed, and we got birdtv set up.  It was the best! Sorry Mr Weatherperson – it was far far better than real telly.bird tv much better than real tv Here’s Mama Blackbird working hard to feed her chicks.bird tvAnd here’s Papa Blackbird working hard to keep the nest clean!papa blackbird cleaning up nestMama Blackbird knew how to keep her chicks in order – look at that little squashed face on the right!mama blackbird sitting on nestSomebody else in the house was very interested in birdtv…Poe watching bird tvBut poor old Poe – she’s really confused!  Love this pic of her trying to work out where the baby birds really are.Poe looking behind the tvWhen she was younger, she was really seriously into bird watching …Poe watching birds on fenceBut now she’s older, she just lets the world go by…  Unfortunately there are other teens in the block.  This is our neighbours’ young cat who is fascinated by what goes on in our garden. neighbour's catSometimes young bemused teens fly into our conservatory and have to be coaxed out. young swallow in our conservatoryOne year we had a silly sick young carrier pigeon (nicknamed Gormy) whom Stephen loved to death (sadly that’s true though it was a very poorly bird when it arrived).gormy the pigeonWe were beginning to think that this was going to be rather a disappointing year.  No birds nesting in our wood shed, and where are the chaffinches and greenfinches we’ve found feeding at our table in previous years?  birds under feederThese days, it’s quite ordinary birds that we find eating on our path…more birds on garden path But you can never guess the animal world.  Who was to arrive earlier this week but Larky Boy!  (I shouldn’t really label this bird so because I don’t actually know if it is male or female.)  But he (I’m sticking with Larky Boy) is most unusual and a real delight.

We hear the larks here on and off all summer, and sometimes catch brief sightings of them, rising helicopter-fashion from their nests in the local fields up, up, up to the heavens for some glorious singing.  But they are very shy birds….apart from Larky Boy.  He even did a little tentative practice singing on our lawn!larky boyThe other day he brought his siblings.  But they haven’t reappeared.  He has though, – just got to enjoy his presence while it lasts.  three larks on the lawnWhat pleasure it is to have these birds with us for a while.

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The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clearing the decks

My last major project was my story quilt which I finished in April.  It was completely absorbing so when I had finished I had a build up of small projects and repairs to do.  Projects get thrown to the side  when time is short, piling up wherever there’s space in my  Woolly Room.  woolly room workings I have a tiny little Woolly Room (so named by my children when they were small…. you might guess why from this photo – if you can see the yarn cones for everything else on the shelves.)woolly room shelvesThis post is about clearing the decks before I start another big project.

There are always woolly projects on the go in the Woolly Room so it’s probably best to start with some  knitting…

I’ve loved Tin Can Knits’ Old Growth pattern for a long time.  It wouldn’t work for me because the button band is off centre (I tend to wear my cardies open and with this cardi, I’d have a lot of fabric hanging free).  But I thought it would be a really nice cardi for a friend’s baby.  The motif that is such an integral part to this knit, didn’t work with my yarn (Rowan all seasons cotton), so I had to adjust the pattern slightly.  You can see below how ridged and gappy the original motif is – I’m much happier with my adaptation above. knitting cardi for Maud The yarn came from my stash, as did the ladybird buttons – always a most satisfactory use of existing resources.  Can’t wait to see little Maud wearing it.finished cardi for MaudWhen this little cardi was finished, I had to get something else on my needles quickly for travel knitting.  So I started another 3S shawl.  This is the first one I have knitted in stripes of different colour.  I am using bits and pieces of my homespun yarn, having discovered that I had a lot of bluey/greeny/purple tones that worked so well together.

I just love knitting this shawl pattern.  I really want to knit it all the time, so have to be strict with myself and only let it come out when I am on the train or in the car.3S purple blue green shawlI had a couple of dresses that I wanted to wear now the weather is better.   This one came from a local charity shop, and it’s viscose (which I don’t usually wear, and have recently heard terrible stories of viscose which confirm my distaste).  However, I love love love the bold fabric pattern, and it has a great hang, so I decided to give it a go.  Trouble is, the skirt had been joined to the bodice in the most unflattering way – just gathered and sewn.  The pattern is so loud that you may not be able to make out quite what I mean here? bodice of K's striking black and white dressI carefully unpicked the bodice/skirt seam, and re-joined them in the Washi dress style – it is flat across the stomach, with 3 pleats drawing the fabric to the side.  Same on the back.  To make sure the pleats lay flat (and flattering) I added a (high) waistband inside. redoing bodice band I’m not sure you will really see what I’ve taken so much care to do.  However, I know it is a great improvement every time I wear it.  And we all know that at the end of the day that’s all that matters.  modelling K's striking black and white dressThis is a beautiful dress I made at least ten years ago.  I bought the fabric in Habitat.  I don’t know if it is really indigo-dyed, but it gives a very good impression of being hand-printed and hand-dyed.  It is a beautiful soft, strong cotton – very comfortable to wear against the body, and with good drape. long version of K's Habitat fabric dress But it is very long.  I used to wear in hot Devon summers when I was much younger.  Now I am older and live in cooler Northumberland, the length just doesn’t work.  Indeed, the length would be positively maddening in the wind that we can get here.  So time to cut it short, much much shorter.working on K's blue Habitat fabric dressNow I’ve cut it shorter, and I’ve also let out the centre seam  (you can just see the exposed fabric in the centre is darker).  But it is still too tight.  Face it, Katherine,  it is too small for you to wear comfortably.  Over 10 years you have put on a bit of weight…. The answer is to cut down the centre of the dress (sort of like doing one of those scary steeks), and add an extra strip of wider material.  Then add some buttons for decoration.  But which to choose… just too much choice.trying out buttons on Habitat fabric dress I’m still not sure that I chose the right buttons…or that buttons work on this dress at all.  I’ve got a little matching bag which my daughter made for me (one of her first projects when she was a teenager and just exploring sewing machine possibilities).  She’s reversed the fabric and got the strong pattern lines running horizontally.  It’s a fab little bag – thank you, Helen!K modelling finished Habitat fabric dressNow for mending – there is always mending to do here!

Stephen had worn through the other elbow on his pullover, so that needed darning.darning Stephen's green pulloverAnd I’ve been renovating my father’s old shopping bag.  My father died just two months ago, and my mother has started to give away his things.  She thought this was right for me, and it is – just right!  Funny how sometimes the most unexpected and ordinary gifts are the best.  My father used this bag everyday when he would walk out with his dog and his stick to buy milk, deal with the post and the other everyday things of life.  It came to me worn and weary.mending RHE's bagI’ve recovered the worn handles with new strong fabric, and I’ve added patches to the corners and sides where the bag was getting a bit holey.  It’s a plasticised cotton bag, and the iron-on patch material didn’t take very well (I had to be very careful with iron temperature), so some of the patches had to be glued as well.  Here’s my new bag, visibly mended, looking great and it gives me such pleasure to use it.RHE's bag with repairsNow that all that stuff is finished, I can do something about all those exciting projects I’ve been fantasising about.

There’s fleece to be spun. Here it is, freshly dyed and drying on the washing line.closeup of green fleece on washing lineI’ve got some tapestry work on the go.Judi Dench embroidery in processAnd I’ve got some new books to explore.inspirational booksWhere to start?!

Women’s Work

Writing recently about the textiles that family members had made in Family Treasures, I was struck by how privileged those crafters had all been.   All those cushion covers, embroideries, needle cases, patchwork etc were the comfortable leisure activities of people with time and materials to spare.

It isn’t always like that, of course.  Handicrafts arose from necessity.  Sewing, spinning, knitting, weaving and darning were in many cases essential skills for women in the days before you could easily and cheaply purchase your clothing.  Skilled craftwork brought income to both men and women (and indeed still do in many parts of the world today).

Over the last few months I’ve been reading two books that have focused on these different attitudes to handicrafts:  Hands to the Spindle.  Texas Women and Home Textile production 1822 – 1880 by Paula Mitchell Marks and Women’s Work.  The First 20,000 Years.  Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.  I can strongly recommend both books for their insights into historic women’s lives.  While Elizabeth Wayland Barber looks at a huge swathe of very distant time, Paula Mitchell Marks concerns herself with a narrow timeframe in the relatively recent past.Women's work booksBecause Paula Mitchell Marks is working with more recent material we are able to hear the women’s voices directly.  I’m going to tell you parts of the story she recounts from the memoirs of Sarah Harkey Hall.  Sarah was born in 1857, the fifth of thirteenth children.  She writes of her mother: “Her children were like stair steps and such a burden to card and weave, every thread we all wore, and make our clothes by hand…”  The two older sisters helped with “spin filling at 8 years old”, while Sarah was the baby nurse. “Oh! the hum of the wheel and the rattle of the cards made me weary, I knew my long weary day had begun – sitting by the cradle.” 

Sarah’s mother died in 1869 after a premature childbirth, and most tragically her father a few weeks later (suffering from a range of different complaints).  The older sisters married and moved out, so Sarah was left to look after the younger children.  Paula continues “At first, she [Sarah] simply labored to patch and piece from worn-out clothes, but she soon turned to her mother’s old spinning wheel and began spinning thread and knitting socks for sale … Sarah for a number of years had to worry, scrimp, and use every resource at her disposal to clothe and cover her younger siblings and herself.  She spun, knitted, and sewed…”

I don’t think I can even begin to imagine Sarah’s life.  But I won’t be alone in having experienced times when I was completely broke – times when I had to be extremely resourceful in making clothes and toys for the family.

My marriage ended acrimoniously in the early 1980s.   My husband then disappeared, and I found myself with two small children under 5 years old, unemployed and with no easy means of earning enough to pay for childcare, a mortgage, and everyday living expenses.  I was incredibly lucky that the state safety-net was there to support me – and continued to support me for the next two and half years.

In those years my children were dressed entirely in clothes that I had made or hand-downs from kindly friends.  Luckily, I had a huge stash of fabrics and yarns from my pre-parenting London-living days.  Here’s my daughter, Helen, looking stylish as ever, in a brown viyella shirt and blue corduroy pinafore.  Both made by me – and, incredibly it seems to me now, ironed regularly by me.1985 Style queen 1As well as sewing, I did a lot of knitting too (although I hadn’t yet learned to spin when first divorced).  Here we all are, on Glastonbury Tor.  Both children are wearing hats and jerseys I’d knitted, and I’d certainly made Helen’s trousers, though I don’t think I’d made the ones James is wearing.J & H 1985 Glastonbury TorThis pig jersey that James is so delightedly modelling here was a real winner – you might just be able to make out the curly little pink piggy tail at the back.  He’s also wearing slipper sox that I’d knitted – hmm, you weren’t supposed to wear those in the garden, James!Jam pig jumper front and backI went on to customise this pattern, and with some design help from James made a very curious shaggy fluffy red dinosaur jersey.  (I’ve been reliably informed it’s a styracosaurus.)plans for dinasaur cardiWhat really kills me about this photo is that Helen, not to be left out, has added herself in such an alluring pose just to the side of the real model. J and H Shobrroke dinasaur cardi I made things for Christmas and birthdays too.  Here’s the climbing frame cover I made.  It was supposed to mean the climbing frame could double up as a “home”, a “base”, a “safe house”……1988 Christmas climbing frame coverWhat I really focused on was making fancy-dress clothes.  This clown costume was one of the first that I made.  (Yes – it’s the same primary-coloured elephant material as above!  I’d bought a large quantity of this fabric very cheaply, and used it to make a remarkable array of toys and garments).James Christmas 1985Here – a bit later in time – are my two youngest step-daughters, Ellie and Zacyntha, joining in the Christmas fancy dress modelling show.  Ellie (on the left) was the Christmas Tree fairy, James had a conjuror costume,  Zacyntha is the Nutcracker Sugar Plum fairy and Helen (on the right) is Ariel, the Little Mermaid.1991 Christmas fancy dress costumes editedI also made odd things for sale, – anything that brought in a bit of cash.   And, of course, all my friends received hand-made gifts.  This Shetland sweater was machine-knitted.  I was asked to make two copies of a worn-out original sweater.  It was a real challenge – and I don’t think the recipient really appreciated the hard work that had gone into the two new jumpers.Machine knitted Shetland jersey (Pete)The biggest influence on my knitting in the early eighties was Kaffe Fassett.  His love of abundant pattern and colour was extraordinarily exciting and an enormous source of inspiration.  My kind neighbour taught me to spin (as I wrote in an earlier blog) and I was away!  My house became filled with fleece, wool and yarns.  It was at this time that little James told me wisely that we weren’t rich in money but we were rich in wool.  Too right, Jammy, too right!

Here my very good friend, Mandy, models the Kaffe Fassett Damask Flower cardigan that I made for her birthday one year.  I wonder if she still has it?  They had such large ungainly sleeves – very unfashionable now.Mandy Kaffe fassett cardiI knitted several versions of the Kaffe Fassett Persian Poppy cardigan for various friends. S J-K Kaffe Fasset cardiAnd I even came up with my own  Kaffe Fassett-style patterns.  (Alas – my photographic skills were SO poor!)  For my Wave cardigan, I took a motif often found in Persian carpet design, having realised that knitting it in the blues, whites and creams of ocean colours made it look just like waves.  It was knitted in any yarn I could lay my hands on – homespun, bought, unravelled old cardies …  silks, mohairs, wool, synthetic … all went in together.K's sea cardiWhat really strikes me when I think back to my hard-up times, is what an abundance of materials I had.  They may not always have been quality, or what I would ideally have worked with, but there was plenty.

Sarah, on the other hand, writes agonisingly painfully: “When my frock became so tattered and torn I would examine it closely to see if I could remedy it that it would appear more neatly.  I soon saw by taking out the whole front and put[ting] in a new one it would be whole but where was I to get the cloth?   All had been consumed and not a piece [left] over. … I had to do without.”

Writing about my younger life as I am now, I see that a golden cast has settled on these times.  I have lost the memories of exhausted and lonely single-parenting days.  It seems like a halcyon time.  Which it certainly wasn’t!

What did sustain me – and delightfully, I find this with Sarah Harkey Hall too – is the pleasure of ingenuity.  Making do, successfully adapting what you have to what you need is so darned satisfying!

Here’s Paula Mitchell Marks finishing off Sarah’s story: “While her reminiscences of these years reveal the tremendous responsibility and despair she felt, some creativity and pride showed in her textile labors.  Using commercial ‘ducken’, or duck – a strong plain-weave cotton fabric – for her little brothers’ trousers, she extracted a dye from ‘Shoneyhaw bushes’ and colored the material a rich navy blue, causing a neighbour to exclaim with amazed pleasure, ‘What kind of goods is it Sarah?  This is Ducken – Why I never saw that colour of Ducken.”

Good on you, Sarah Harkey Hall! 

Edin’s Hall Broch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.