All change

I’ve been both a town and a country mouse. One thing that stands out for me as I revert to country mouse status is how oblivious I’ve been to natural change when living in towns and cities.

It’s been partly due to my occupations in these places, of course, that I have noticed things so differently.  When rushing to work in town or city, you may indeed notice the seasons change, but the micro changes so often pass you by.

Everything at Seaview conspires to remind us that the old Greek adage from Heraclitus πάντα ῥεῖ (everything flows) is true. Life here is constant flux.

The sun and the moon show this as well as anything.  These photographs of a wintry sunrise on the solstice last year (December 21st) were all taken in the matter of minutes as the sun rose to the west of  Bamburgh Castle. First a tiny hint that something was coming …sunrise-1-on-the-solstice-21-12-15Then a bit more …sunrise-2-on-the-solstice-21-12-15And as the sun continues to rise, it appears to swivel to the right …sunrise-3-on-the-solstice-21-12-15Now you can see clearly the orb approaching …sunrise-4-on-the-solstice-21-12-15Likewise the moon, here captured on the night of the Supermoon last month, (14th November) …supermoon-14-11-2016Through the early evening, the moon moved rapidly across the sky, in and out of the clouds.  But there were other changes afoot too – man-made changes.  In the blink of an eye, a train slipped across our line of sight, travelling down the mainline East Coast railway line …supermoon-14-11-2016-with-trainCloud banks constantlychange, sweeping across the huge Northumbrian skies in a fascinating variety of patterns …cloud-formationsRainbows shimmer for a moment (here over Holy Island) – and then pass on …rainbow-on-holy-islandSometimes the moment appears to linger. This foggy sunrise last winter seemed trapped in a cold still world …washing-line-in-the-misty-sunBut the lingering is always an illusion, usually fostered by the light on cold days, as captured in this picture of Berwick, golden in the setting sun …winter-sun-on-berwickYou’ve got to be quick to catch the birds sweeping through our skylines too.  Starlings over the neighbouring houses …cloud-of-starlings-copyCrowds of seagulls following the plough …seagulls-following-the-ploughOr this solitary bird caught in a recent sunrise …bird-at-dawnUnremarkable hungry black birds, looking extraordinary in black and white …wintry-birdsAnd our very favourites, the little sanderlings (who only visit this area in the winter), running in and out of the waterline on the Tweed …sanderlings-on-the-shoreJust occasionally we manage to capture the boats coming into the Tweed – not often.  Entry is difficult, limited by the tides, and so dodgy (because the channel is very narrow) that only the local pilots are allowed to navigate these boats to the Tweed Dock. Magical to see them rushing past Berwick’s old lighthouse …marinda-entering-the-tweedTides – ah, yes, tides. Nothing, of course, demonstrates the inevitability and variety of natural change like the tides.

“Twice daily the tides are here, sometimes 
breenging shoreward like an army
of small, mad, angry locals,
at others, creeping in on tourist feet.
They are their own beginnings & endings …”

from At Douglas Hall by Stuart  A Patterson (a Borders poet) 

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to record these changes by photographing the Tweed Estuary from our lane throughout the day.  In all these pictures, you should be able to make out the wide panorama, stretching from Berwick’s old lighthouse on the far right to Berwick’s Royal Border Bridge on the left of the picture. These pictures start at 9.21 am with very low tide, and the sands of Spittal Point stretching out almost down to the lighthouse …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-9-21-amAn hour later (10.22 am), the sun has come out, there’s a van coming down the lane, and the sands of Spittal Point are succumbing to the incoming tide …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-10-22-amBy 11.26 am, the sky is really blue, there are some gorgeous light clouds mirroring the line of the pier, and only a few islands of sand are still uncovered by the tide …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-11-26-am12.20, and the sky is far less exciting, the sun has gone in, there are still a few very small islands of sand in the Tweed – and there’s a train running up the East Coast mainline, Berwick bound, I think …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-12-20-am13.17, and rather a dull picture of high tide and no sun …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-13-17-pmAn hour later (14.20 pm), and shafts of low wintry sun are running over the picture from the left (the west) as another train is captured on the Eastcoast railway line.  It is very high tide …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-14-20-pmBy 15.17 pm the light is beginning to go, but an odd flash of blue sky is revealed in the dying light.  The tide is on the turn …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-15-17-pmAnd the last picture of daylight, taken at 16.15 pm, the sky and sea are delicately rose-pink from the rays of the setting sun in the west.  The tide is still only a very little way out …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-16-15-pmHow uplifting – in a year when the world has seen such radical and disturbing global changes – are these ephemeral sudden shafts of light …

 

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Christmas gifts – and wintry weather!

December knocked me flat.  I feel quite ashamed to admit this because in retirement we enjoy a leisurely and simple Christmas.  No longer are there small children to delight and exhaust, no longer are we heavily involved with parish church festivities, and no longer do we have working schedules that get more and more chaotic as Christmas approaches.  I look back on those times with amazement – and wonder how we did it all?

This year, it is only now – as Twelfth Night, Epiphany, the end of the Christmas festival, approaches – that I have recovered sufficient mojo to look back on December reflectively.

Of course lots happened.  But for the purposes of this blogpost, I’m going to concentrate on homemade Christmas gifts.  These made me very happy – and I hope they gave the recipients pleasure too.

I just love the small furry animals devised by Kerry Lord, the talented brains behind the Toft alpaca story. They are so cute – so quirky – with so much character – surely, I thought,  they would be acceptable gifts to our very grown-up children?

The first Toft creature I made – a bunny – was crocheted using Toft’s own alpaca yarn.  I’m not a crocheter and found the pattern very hard to master so I was just pleased as punch when I finished her.  Isn’t she a sweetie-pie?Toft BunnyA wintry day in December found me up in my woolly workroom, with Poe, our cat, putting together some more Toft creatures.  I didn’t have enough of the Toft yarn to crochet more creatures, so dug into my stash for some hand-dyed homespun. A single strand of Rowan Kidsilk Haze added to homespun  gave the Toft creatures a soft furry finish.

The trickiest part to making these Toft creatures is the stuffing – they need to be tactically understuffed. I’m getting better at this – not easy.   But it is the sagginess that adds to the character. Each creature also has a little bag of “ballast” sewn into their belly to help provide core stability.working on Toft animalsThese two were meant to be Siamese cats but they do not look at all feline to me. No, they are foxes, surely – little Fennec Foxes, I think!Toft Fennec FoxesHere’s my Toft gang before they set off bearing Christmas love and good wishes. Most of them went to new homes, but three little ones (the darker ones – my earlier attempts) keep me company and stay here.  As it is cold and wintry, they all got stripey scarves to keep them warm on their travels.Toft animal collectionSome Toft creatures found themselves making new furry friends in their new homes … Others got Christmas cuddles when they arrived …Hats were my other focus this Christmas.  Browsing through old Designer Knitting magazines, I found this two-colour cabled hat designed by Cully Swansen in the Winter 2009/10 issue.   Just a great pattern – and excellent for using up smaller amounts of yarn.  I changed the pattern slightly, adding a wide-ribbed headband in place of the garter stitch of the original pattern.  All the pompoms are alpaca and were purchased from the Toft alpaca shop – I can’t tell you how lovely they are: soft and furry and very fluffy.Cully Swansen's hat patternMy first attempt was this green and white hat. The white is the leftover yarn from the Toft bunny above, and the green is homespun mixed fibres yarn (wool, silk, and mohair).  I picked up a small ball of what I think is Noro Silk Garden in a charity shop and put a strand of that with my homespun.  This added to the variegated effect and the softness.Hat for BarbaraI was really pleased with the green and white hat – so made another. It took me a long time to work out the colours. I knew I wanted grey – but what to put with it. I tried red – no, too obvious. But khaki golden yellow? Hmm – yes, that looks very promising.  I think its what is called Grellow in knitting circles these days.  The yellow is left over Rowan alpaca colour (a gorgeous soft silky yarn) and the grey is two strands made up of Lang Donegal and another grey yarn (name and details lost – oh dear, system slipping).Jam's Christmas hatWe had perfect weather over the Christmas period for the wearing – and modelling – of the new hats.Jam & Barbara in hatsI made three of these hats as Christmas presents. This last is more a beanie because that’s what my husband wanted.  He didn’t think a pompom was for him …   (The black is Debbie Bliss Fine Donegal combined with my own homespun, and the name and origins of the red scrap is lost in history – but it is a lovely thick flecked yarn.)Stephen's cabled beanieAnd now I’m making one for myself. I found it very difficult to restrict myself to two colours so with my own hat, I’ve allowed myself to use three colours. I know it doesn’t show off the clean lines of the cabling, but the colours work well together. One of the yarns is a beautiful hand spun merino yarn my husband brought back from South Uist.  It’s red and orange and brown and yellow – Uist Landscapes – Peat Stack is the name the spinner, Denise Bridge, has given it.  So evocative.  The variegation confuses the cable pattern further, of course, but I don’t think that matters.  The homespun merino is like little flames in the green and brown, isn’t it?  (The green is a Rowan Tweed, and the brown is my own homespun combined with a strand of dark purple Rowan Kidsilk Haze.)Katherine's cabled hatMy son asked for the present we all want – more time.   And this is what my clever Stephen gave him – why, of course, let’s up the hours in a day from twelve to thirteen!  That’s 8.3% more time a day … Look how pleased my Jammy is!  The secret of this time cook-up lies with Stephen, but I can let you know that there were cheap Homebase clocks and Excel broadsheets involved …13 hour clockThere were a couple of new GiveWraps for these presents.  Both went to cat-loving ladies. I think these Japanese ladies work very well with the cats – for some reason …Japanese ladies and cats GiveWrapAnd this GiveWrap went to a lady who loves cats and Mexican Day of the Dead images  and Moomins – and those scratchy cats of Alexander Henry’s keep up on cropping up everywhere …Even an old child’s pillowcase has started a new life as a GiveWrap … happy memories …  Mr men GiveWrapI was given the most generous of gifts – gifts to feed inspiration.  There were books and fabrics and yarns ….

Perhaps you read my blogpost about dyeing fleece, and my undisciplined methods?  This year I am going to learn how to dye properly – thank you, Gail Callahan!Hand dyeing bookThese wonderful Japanese fabrics were a gift from my daughter.  They are such an amazing vibrant colour – and the patterns!  I sort of have the seeds of an idea for another quilt – and perhaps these would be part of that …Christmas fabrics from HelenMore fabrics from Stephen. This is an entire sari – silk, of course.  It is vintage – I guess that means somebody threw it out?  It is very soft, both in texture and in colour, and I will not be throwing it out any time soon.  There is enough material to make a full length dress, but my seventies days are over, and I’ll probably be making a tunic to wear over leggings.  Gorgeous to wear in the summer.recycled sariFrom another Ebay website, Stephen got these silk sari scraps.  These are the good parts from old, damaged and worn-out saris.  They will make some beautiful GiveWraps.recycled sari piecesLots and lots of inspiration there.  Now the days are grey and dark, windy (very) and miserable.  I learn from a Brittany instagrammer that the Celts call this time Les Mois Noirs.  Apt description indeed.  We look out on wet puddled fields …view from window and wild seas …Spittal beach promenadeOnly the seagulls seem not to care …Seagull soaring over wavesOur lane is eroding as water forces new pathways …View down our laneTime to put all the lights on so that I can actually see some colour, and get playing with all this gorgeous new stuff!

(I must add that although the weather here is very wet and windy and generally horrible, we have not been flooded.  Many homes in the UK have experienced awful flooding troubles over the last few weeks.  There are some poor souls watching and waiting as I write, fearing they will be flooded soon with this continuing rain. It’s been a heartbreaking Christmas for many.)

All is safely gathered in

(I was away when they harvested the grain in the fields in front of our house, so guest editor Stephen has kindly written a harvest blog for you – and me! to enjoy.)

It’s harvest time. For many people now this has become an almost mythic time of the year. City dwellers rarely see grain fields except on long car journeys or from train windows as they speed through the countryside. Even though I was brought up in a small industrial town in the midlands and must have passed many fields either ripe with grain or covered in stubble I would rarely, if ever, have seen the actual harvesting of the grain – perhaps only glimpsed on a country excursion.

Birds and harvester

And so for many people harvest was celebrated for one day of the year in church at Harvest Festival, a Sunday when the church would be decorated with flowers, and produce from gardens and allotments would be placed around the altar – along with tins and packaged foodstuffs. A rural vicar might cadge a sheaf of wheat from a local farmer; but what my father obtained as a vicar in North London during my teenage years I have no recollection. (Ironically he was responsible for a group of local clergy, and for this he received a special title – Rural Dean!)

The harvest services had their special hymns, only sung at this time, which add to the atmosphere and memories of this festival. Come ye thankful people, come (from which the title of this blog comes), Fair waved the golden corn, & We plough the fields and scatter.

But we are incredibly privileged to live in the midst of open fields where we see the whole cycle from planting to harvesting unfold before us.

And there comes that magical day when weather and season rhyme, and the combine arrives.

Harvesting against sea

And most spectacular it is. The combine is assisted by grain lorries which take the grain from the harvester even whilst it continues to reap.

Transfering grain

Time is of the essence here and so they speed away to the farm where the grain is transferred into their silo. Even with a pair of lorries they find it hard to keep up. From there the grain is sold on to grain dealers – and who knows where it ends up. For the farmer is now at the mercy of the international forces of supply and demand over which he has no control.

Harvester in action

There is a decreasing demand for straw for a variety of reasons – mainly to do with the decrease in the size of the national dairy herd. And so for most of the crops harvested on the local farms the straw is simply chopped inside the harvester, spewed out the back, and left as a mulch on the fields. So far this year we have yet to see bales on any of the harvested fields. Last year the grain was grown right up to our boundary. Up close the combine harvester is an awesome beast.

Bit too close for comfort

Harvesting doesn’t usually start until about midday. This gives a chance for any dew on the grain to dry off – but once started a keen eye is kept on the weather forecast. This year rain was forecast for the next day and so they continued on into dusk . . . .

Twilight harvest

. . . . and beyond. Finally it was all finished at about 11pm, long after it had got dark.

Night harvest

In olden times there would now be a huge celebration – a feast called Harvest Home. The whole community would turn out to escort the final wagons laden with the stooks of corn back to the farm. Here is a depiction of this in a print from around 1820.

harvest home

And then the feasting would commence – a scene often depicted in costume dramas, and most memorably in John Schlesinger’s film of Hardy’s novel, Far from the Madding Crowd.

Villages and parishes still commemorate this event with a Harvest Supper, though many of those attending will have little if any connection with agriculture. Changes in farming practices and  increased mechanization have meant that the agricultural workforce in the UK  has shrunk dramatically in modern times, from 22% of the workforce in 1841 to less than 1% in 2011.

And the increasing efficiency of modern harvesters means that very little grain goes unharvested. In olden times this was left on the fields for the poor of the parish, who would come and glean what they could – a scene memorably captured in Millais’s painting, ‘The Gleaners’.

Millais Gleaners

And you might like to look at Banksy’s reinterpretation of this painting Click here

Modern harvesters are so efficient that very little is left, and the only gleaners now are the birds who descend on the stubble in large numbers – pigeons, seagulls, crows, and starlings. Huge flocks of starlings turn up from who knows where, and when frightened all fly up in alarm.

Birds against sea

They seem to swarm about in an extraordinary coordinated way . . . .

Swirling starlings

 . . . . or settle on the nearby power lines. Shades of Alfred Hitchcock!

Bird on a wire

But they don’t have long to feast. Fields are now often planted straight after harvesting with winter wheat which is hardy enough to survive the winter and gives improved yields due its longer growing season. For this the fields need to be prepared.

Fields were normally cleared of stubble by burning, but this practice was banned in 1993 for a variety of reasons. I remember the countryside covered in smoke at this time of year. This year our farmer tried to burn off some large standing clumps of dead grass along a fence line. The fire got out of hand and the stubble started to burn. This picture gives you an impression of how the countryside might have looked at this time:

Stubble burning

So stubble is now either ploughed in or roughly combined with the soil by harrowing. Modern farming practice is for fields not to be ploughed every year as it can break down the soil structure. At this point manure may be spread on the land. Our farmer uses the manure from his herd of Aberdeen Angus beef cattle – and with the wind in the right direction very pungent it is too!

Muck spreading

Here is the field in front of our house being ploughed in September, 2013. The seed was planted a day or two later.

Ploughing

It was a mild Autumn and so the crop got off to good start. Here is the scene one month later – already turning green.

New growth Oct

And finally by early December the fields almost look like a lawn, here with a flock of fieldfares resting during their migration from Scandinavia to Southern Europe.

December field fares

And so the cycle of the farming year rolls on.

And what of the future? Global warming may well result in some other sort of crop being gathered from these fields. Perhaps, a hundred years hence, the occupants of our home will be looking out over rows of vines or groves of olive trees.

Northumbrian Rock Art

Northumberland is full of secrets!  We’d lived here awhile before somebody mentioned the rock art to us.  Apparently, there were some rock carvings, just off the road to Lowick, not far away from us.  We didn’t think very much of it, and then one day we sort of happened upon the spot.  There’s no sign on the road that something momentous is just off it – only evidence of a track, the indentations in the undergrowth left by people walking off the road, into the little wood.entrance to Roughting Linn gladeFollow the track then, and there you are, in the grove – a lump of sandstone, with heather. moss and foxgloves growing on the mound and about.  This is Roughting Linn.Roughting Linn stonesLook carefully, through the lichen, and you will see the carvings.Roughting Linn rock carvingsThese photos above were all taken when we revisited the site last week.  And they do not do justice to the carvings – a summery day is not the time to look for rock art!  You need the shadows of evening or autumn.

Our first visit was in October 2011 and the photographs we took then show the carvings much more clearly.Roughting Linn carvingsRoughting Linn carvings 2They are extraordinarily mysterious and fascinating.  What are they and why?  Who did them?  How were they made?  When were they made?

Lots of questions and there are no answers.

What puzzled me most about the Roughting Linn carvings after our first visit was why somebody had felt so strongly about this particular place that they had wanted to enhance the stone with these carvings.

Of course, we see the site quite differently from how our ancestors did.  These rhododendron bushes – modern imports – are a clear reminder that localities change.  The greenness adds to the mystery of the place for us, but the Ordnance Survey map shows there was a small hill fort here – something you’re quite unaware of now because of the trees and shrubs.undergrowth around Roughting LinnIt’s the small waterfall nearby that is thought to hold the answer as to why our ancestors wanted to record their art on this stone – a strange, mysterious and magical place.

Again, you step just off the track into a green world as the path steps down steeply to the stream.path to waterfallWet, muddy and very slippery – we both ended up on our bottoms several times as we went down.uprooted treeNot as old as the rock art perhaps, but people have wanted to record their presence here for many years.graffittied treeA small cave just off the path adds to the feeling of mystery here.small cave near waterfallFirst glimpse of the waterfall.First glimpse of waterfallYou cannot but approach with the feeling that you are in a special place.  Archaeologists and theologians speak of the liminal: where places are “thin”, where the “other” is more present than elsewhere.  Roughting Linn waterfallThe twisted corpse of a tree – it is as though the very trees are watching guardians of this place.twisted corpse of a treeBack to where we had parked the car nearby, and we found this on the wall.  An offering to the gods of the place?sheep's head watching usStan Beckensall was the man responsible for the serious recording of these rock art carvings.  A local teacher, he became fascinated with them, and has pushed for their appreciation and conservation over many years.  The Northumbrian Rock Art website, set up under the aegis of Newcastle University with an AHRC grant, consolidated his hard work.  You can read therein his assessment of the Roughting Linn rock art.

Roughting Linn is perhaps the best known and most easily accessed of the local rock art sites.  But we were lucky enough to enjoy a walk with Ron Shaw up Chatton Hill recently to find more rock art.  Ron is most knowledgeable about this area, having devised the St Cuthbert’s Way path when working as a tourism officer in Wooler.

We set out on a gentle trek up Chatton Hill through beautiful grasslands.  It is credit to the farmer that this site is accessible and well-managed (as recorded in this BBC article).Ron and Stephen climbing Chatton hillLooking back over the gentle incline to where we had parked the car (the small white speck on the road).Looking back to parked carWe’ve got a worried sheepy audience – you can sense them wondering why these people are in their fields and heading their way?sheep watching us warilyAah – we’re after the rock art on the brow of the hill.  It takes a while to find it – there’s plenty of sandstone slabs about, and it could be any one of them.   Sadly, it’s not unusual to find examples of modern graffiti.modern graffiti on Chatton HillBut find it we do, and here is my photograph of the find with the magnificence of Northumbrian skies and the Cheviots in the distance.Chatton hill rock carvingsThere’s time for photography and the recording of the triumph of finding the specific stone.Ron and Stephen taking photographsHowever, we encountered the same problems we’d had at Roughting Linn: the light of a summer’s day (even if overcast) is not conducive to good rock art photographs.  So Shirley, Ron’s wife, has most generously allowed me to reproduce her photos of the same site, (both taken in the early spring, but on different years – you can see the snow of the Cheviots in the lower photo).  These are great photos that do full justice to the site, and allow you to capture the sense of awe our ancestors may have felt on top of a glorious Northumberland hill.Chatton Park Hill 05Chatton Park Hill 08We continued Ron watching Stephen aheadWe’re now looking for Ketley Crag which Ron tells us is somewhere on this hillside, but since he was last there the bracken has completely taken over.  We spent quite a while ploughing  through the bracken from sandstone slab to sandstone slab, but no luck.  The Ketley Crag is not for viewing on this trip!View over bracken to the CheviotsLuckily, Shirley is able to help out again, and here are her photos of the Ketley Crag rock art, taken in the very early spring.Kettley Crag rock shelter 03Kettley Crag rock shelter 01It’s quite different from both the other rock art examples I’ve explored in this blog, sitting as it does under a protruding rock, on the side of a hill.  Undoubtedly a beautiful place, but liminal, awe….no, neither of those descriptions seem to match this spot.  But then, I haven’t actually seen it in person – perhaps if I did, I would “get it”.  Definitely a trip for another day – probably in the autumn when the bracken has died back and the light is softer.  For now I’ve got to settle for these fine photos and what the Northumberland Rock Art database has to say on Ketley Crag.Kettley Crag outlook westThese places leave you silent.  The mystery, the wondering, together with the magnificence of the Northumbrian landscape – what did these artists want to tell us?

(Many thanks to Shirley and Ron Shaw for the use of their photographs and a wonderful guided walk.)