Making a Northumbrian piper’s plaid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Paxton walk

The meteorologists warned us last week of horrible cold wet windy weather to come, so we seized the opportunity to get out on Friday. Thank goodness we did. We had a truly golden day.

It was cold – look how wrapped up I am! The first time this winter that I’ve had all my winter woollies out and on.We decided to park our car on the English side of the Union Chain Bridge, walk over the bridge to Scotland, up along the Tweed to Paxton House, through the grounds and onto Paxton village where we could get lunch at the newly-refurbished Cross Inn.  Then retrace our steps.  Not a big walk at all – more of an amble really.  mapThe Union Chain Bridge is one of our very favourite places in the locality – (you can read my paean to this fine bridge here.)beatiful-union-chain-bridge-bannerIt sits across the magnificent river Tweed, and for much of its way separates the countries of England and Scotland.walking-over-union-chain-bridge-to-scotlandSomebody had put/left/forgotten a little clown vase near the centre of the bridge.  An appeasement to the gods of the river?small-clown-vase-on-bridgeAt the far side, we followed a path to the river bank just below these enormous suspension cables.suspension-cables-of-union-chain-bridgeLooking back up from the path at the enormous stone pillars supporting the suspension cables, you can’t help but be impressed.looking-up-at-the-union-chain-bridgeThe walk along the river embankment was very muddy – it’s obviously a heavily-walked route. But no matter – so much to see, so much to enjoy.  How clear the water is!  Autumn leaves being carried along with the water.  Perhaps we will meet these same leaves again when walking on our local beach at Spittal where the Tweed meets the sea?water-so-clear-leaves-drifitng-down-streamThere were birds getting on with their own lives. We glimpsed a heron fishing through the trees.glimpse-of-a-heron-through-the-treesOur walk took us past small private and secretive doors …past-little-private-doorsThen, in the distance,  we caught our first glimpse of the rosy stone wall surrounding the Paxton estate …glimpse-of-paxtons-wall-up-the-riverNot far to go now …approaching-paxtons-groundsCloser, the door was a magical invitation to a private world …through-a-hole-in-the-wall-into-paxtons-groundsInside the estate, the walk was as golden as ever …a-golden-walkThere were fine trees – and a little teddy bear trail ….childrens-find-the-teddy-bear-game-in-evidenceLooking up we were able to catch a glimpse of Paxton House through the trees.  Paxton House was built in the 1760s to be a fine mansion looking out on the river Tweed – but alas, they have allowed the trees to grow so tall that there is almost no view of the Tweed from Paxton House any longer – such a pity.paxton-house-glimpsed-through-the-treesBefore long we reached Paxton’s fish and boat houses.paxtons-fish-house-and-boat-houseThey run boat trips from here – something we’ve never done, but definitely plan to do one day.boat-trips-run-from-paxtonNow it was time to climb up from the banks of the river Tweed and through the Paxton estate …walk-takes-us-up-hill-to-housePast the children’s play area – it looked a most imaginatively designed place for children to enjoy!wonderful-childrens-play-areaAnd a brief glimpse once more of Paxton House …finally-get-to-paxton-housePast their masonry treasures/leftovers/rejects sitting casually on the lawns …casual-masonry-piecesPast the apple trees so skilfully espaliered on the red brick wall of the walled garden …walled-garden-wallOver the Linn Burn … aaaah the tree colour!over-bridge-in-paxton-groundsAnd on to the main Paxton entrance gates, guarded by some fine stone lions (and a modern touch: matching grey wheelie bins).entrance-guarded-by-lions-wheelie-binsOur walk to Paxton village only took twenty minutes or so further, but still more of interest to see.  A stylish teal bench – in the middle of nowhere, should you need a rest.  No, I don’t think it’s a bus stop.teal-bench-in-the-middle-of-nowhereWe met an engineer working outside the old telephone exchange to connect somebody up to broadband and had an engrossing conversation, though I must confess much of the technicalities of multi-coloured cables passed me by.arriving-at-paxton-villageThen we turned down a long slicket at the backs of peoples’ houses …walk-down-slicket-to-paxton-villageMuch more fun when you can see the fronts!   These folk have got a rather nice mini- Paxton lion …mini-paxton-lion-outside-this-houseAnd look at these fuchsia cushions outside on the teal bench! – but, oh dear, it’s going to rain!!fetching-fuchsia-pink-cushionsAll right for us luckily – we got to the pub, the Cross Inn, before any showers started.paxtons-cross-innIt’s been pleasantly refurbished and looked welcoming – and indeed was so, with tasty food, and perhaps more importantly for Stephen, tasty beer.newly-refurbished-pub-is-welcoming-insideThen we retraced out steps. I much prefer circular walks, but our return walk was so different that it didn’t matter that we were going over the same ground. The light was completely different – and spectacular – on return.  No longer so gold and so friendly – more stark and much more exciting.

We approached Paxton House the proper way (as it were) on return. paxton-house-bannerBack along the fine avenue of trees …wlaking-back-through-paxton-groundsDown the leafy banks to the river Tweed …walking-through-fallen-leaves-down-to-the-tweedAt first, the Tweed glimpsed through the trees appeared with the gentleness of a John Nash painting upturned-boats-by-the-tweedBut then we veered downstream into the light …river-tweed-glimpsed-through-the-treesMirrored perfection …fantastic-light-walking-back-along-river-tweedDark clouds overhead, rain threatening … but a reassuringly golden sign that we were on the way home …reassuring-way-markerAnd some dappled green ambling …dappled-green-return-walkBefore we had the Union Chain Bridge once more in our sights …first-sight-of-the-bridge-on-our-return-walkDistinctly dark clouds hovering over the bridge now …dark-clouds-over-bridgeThe mighty stone supports of the suspension bridge …stephen-walking-over-the-bridgeBack over the bridge to England …walking-back-over-the-union-chain-bridge-to-englandWhere the bridge supports are cut into the soft local red rock. Back in England just before the rain!back-in-england

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