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Patrington & Withernsea, Week 6: 20 November

What was the most unusual thing you did last week? In my case it involved a tour of an abandoned underground nuclear bunker which is, rather delightfully, up for sale.

I was down in Inverness for a meeting related to industrial archaeology, and the tour was arranged as part of that. The bunker lies unexpectedly in a housing estate, just a few blocks from Raigmore Hospital. It was built by the RAF during World War Two, and buried beneath a mound of sand and gravel to cushion the impact of any German bombs; afterwards repurposed as a command centre during the Cold War, the bunker ended its days as an emergency planning centre for civil disasters such as flooding.

It’s a weird, eerie, desolate place seen by flashlight, two storeys deep, all long corridors and low ceilings filled with dead air and a sense of abandonment. Here’s the operations centre, a large room with a massive table in the centre for pushing little markers across maps; there’s the fully fitted industrial kitchen and food store; and there’s the room with the safe, in which a man sat a man with a loaded weapon at all times—just in case, you understand; just in case. Walking through the musty, empty rooms it feels as though the disaster actually happened, and what’s left is a Pompeii without people.

The best room of all is the most unexpected: the one with the ancient generator. But it’s not the generator that makes you stop and stare. No, it’s the two pristine racing bicycles, each of them lacking a front wheel. And then you get it: if the fuel ran out, you could sit on the bikes and generate electricity by pedal power. (This of course adds a whole new meaning to, ahem, survival of the fittest…)

In gansey news, I have finished the back and and have almost finished the front. In keeping with the photos in Gladys Thompson I am continuing the pattern by way of shoulder straps (this is instead of my more usual rig ‘n fur shoulder strap). I’ll still join them with a three needle bind-off, so I will have a wee ridge running along the length of the shoulders at the join. But do I care? Never a bit: if it’s good enough for Gladys, it’s good enough for me!

Power Cycling

After the tour of the bunker we were all glad to get out, back to the cold, fresh November air. And I suddenly realised what had been in the back of my mind the whole time: with its duck-egg blue corridors of peeling paint, and its oppressive atmosphere or fear and catastrophe, it reminded me disturbingly of Northampton Grammar School for Boys, c.1971. And I suppose it would be some consolation to the last few surviving members of mankind, trapped deep underground as the radioactive winds howled across the surface of a dead planet, to know that they were excused double cross-country running on Thursdays, at least…

[By the way, the BBC did a couple of features on the bunker. You can see the main article here; and there are more photographs here.]

Patrington & Withernsea, Week 5: 13 November

On Saturday we went back to Sarclet harbour, one of our favourite places. It’s about ten miles south of us off the beaten track (turn off the A99 at Thrumster and push on for a mile or so till you run out of road, and there it lies). I’ve spoken before of its appeal as ruined harbour, destroyed in the same great storm of 1872 that smashed the Stevenson breakwater at Wick. It’s an amazing place to explore, though sometimes the ghosts crowd round so thick it’s like walking through early morning mist.

But Sarclet as a place where seals come on their holidays, hoping to pick up a bit of a tan, was entirely new to me. We were standing on the cliffs overlooking the bay and got quite excited when we saw a snout bobbing in the swell. Then we looked at the beach and realised that those tubular grey things that we’d taken for rocks, or possibly an invasion of giant slugs, were in fact an entire colony of seals–more than thirty of the little blighters. From that height they looked like they’d all been squeezed from a tube; I wondered if we’d turned up half an hour earlier we might have caught God down on the beach squeezing them out; as if He secretly replenishes the world’s stocks when nobody is looking, and these ones were still sticky and wet and new.

Alas, a family group of homo sapiens was there before us. But while mother and daughter prudently hung back, father decided to go for a closer look. Well, I could have told him what would happen: half the seals at once bolted for the safety of the ocean, scootching over the rocks with that lumbering breaststroke they use on land; the rest waited, poised for flight. At this the silly ass decided to get an even closer look, and within thirty seconds all but one of the pod was underwater. We could see them swimming in the shallows, popping up now and then to see if the coast was clear, and barking rude pinniped imprecations when they found it wasn’t. At this point we took our leave, feeling obscurely embarrassed on behalf of our species. At least now I understand why seals always look so mournful in the presence of us humans.

In gansey news I have almost completed the back. You can see the pattern more clearly now, simple but effective, and the central panels always remind me of Native American breastplate armour. I am still just about managing to keep to a rate of one 100g ball of yarn per week, though sooner or later I’ll get a life and slow down considerably.


Ladder (22 sts) and cables

The simplicity of the pattern is a big part of its appeal for me, so I determined to keep it simple. I wanted to keep the proportions, too: six panels divided by cables, with a double cable in the centre. In Thompson and Pearson the ladder panels are 18 stitches wide and the double moss stitch panels 16 stitches wide. I had my usual 368 stitches on the body, or 183 stitches for front and back (368-2 seam sts = 366; 366/2 = 183 stitches) to start with. Six cables = an additional 6 stitches.

With a little finagling I found that if I increased by 5 stitches for the cables (instead of 6) I could make the ladders 22 stitches wide and the double moss panels 20 stitches (i.e., an increase of 4 stitches per panel), as follows:

4 cables @ 10 stitches per cable = 40 sts.

And there were fireworks in the evening.

1 central cable @ 18 sts = 18 sts.

4 ladder panels @ 22 sts per panel = 88 sts.

2 moss panels @ 20 sts per panel = 40 sts.

2 flanking sts @ 1 st. each = 2 sts.

Double moss panel (20 sts) and cables

All of this adds up to 188 stitches (183 + 5). The flanking stitches are one at either side, and are there to serve as pick-up stitches around the armhole–so I can pick up the stitches for the sleeve without affecting etc pattern.

Patrington & Withernsea, Week 4: 6 November

We went back to St John’s Point this weekend. This time, instead of making a detour to Scotland’s Haven, we pushed on to the Point itself, a little spike jutting into the Pentland Firth like a decorative leaf-blade on the northern coast of Caithness. You park the car by the roadside and then squelch your way for half a mile or so down a sheep track through gorse and moss and mud, discovering along the way that your boots are not, in fact, as waterproof as you’d hoped.

O Merry Men!

The remains of a hill fort dominate the headland; ditch, stone and mound. The guidebooks say that it was put there to defend the coast, but given the biting north wind it was probably erected by local sheep, working in relays, as a windbreak. Just off St John’s Point the tidal race known as The Merry Men of Mey is formed; the Atlantic smashes itself in waves onto jagged rocks below you and the islands of Stroma and Orkney loom over the churning waters.

Hoy from St John’s Point

Originally Orkney seems to have taken its name from the Pictish tribe who lived there, and meant the island of salmon (or possibly young pigs). But the Pictish word “orc” is practically the same as the Norse word “orkn”, meaning a seal—so when the Vikings turned up they just took the word, added the suffix “eyjar” (islands) and called it Orkneyjar, or Seal Islands. Eventually the “jar” at the end fell into disuse and we were left with plain Orkney.

Seal in Wick River

I had wondered if this had anything to do with Tolkien’s orcs, having recently been reading The Lord of the Rings, but they seem to have an entirely different derivation—from the Old English “orc”, meaning something like an ogre. The word also appears in Beowulf as “orcneas” (demon corpses), and Tom Shippey suggests that as it didn’t have a settled meaning Tolkien felt free to appropriate it for his goblin soldiers. It’s a shame it has nothing to do with Orkney, mind you, as I’ve had abandon my ideas of writing a story where a band of orcs, after the fall of the Dark Lord, decide to settle on Orkney and take up knitting.

In gansey news I have started the gussets, and the yoke. I said last week that this is one of my favourite patterns. I think part of the reason is that this is the first gansey proper in Gladys Thompson‘s inspirational book: 30-odd years ago I opened the book, saw the photograph, and it became imprinted on my brain like a mother duck on a baby duckling. (Looking back, I’m probably fortunate it wasn’t a book on extreme ironing, say, or zorbing.) I know the pattern so well that I haven’t even bothered with a pattern chart. But I’ll post one next week and say more on how I’ve gone about it.

Finally, in parish news Judit has sent me pictures of another gansey she’s knitted. This one’s taken from Beth Brown-Reinsel‘s book (p.136). It’s a striking combination of pattern bands—chequers, diagonal and vertical lines and many more—and the lavender colour really shows it off to good effect. (Judit’s also sent a photo of a previous incarnation of the same patterns, this time in white, so you can see it being modelled.) Once again, warmest congratulations to Judit!

Patrington & Withernsea, Weeks 1-3: 30 October

In The Lord of the Rings Gandalf the wizard warns Frodo that the dark lord Sauron intends to “break down all defences and cover all the lands in a second darkness”. And I found myself wondering: If they lived in Caithness in winter, how would anyone know?

Yes, the clocks went back this weekend. Winter has arrived, and in the mornings pitch blackness is replaced with pitch greyness, as if the sun has developed cataracts. Afternoons, too, are now a thing of the past. I like to think of Gandalf waking from his afternoon nap and dashing off to confront Mrs Gandalf, who is probably in the kitchen plucking a hedgehog for dinner:

Gandalf: It’s as I feared! Sauron has arisen in the east! The world is covered in a second darkness!

Mrs Gandalf (not looking up): What are you on about now?

Gandalf: Darkness! Sauron! The dark lord has reclaimed his fortress of Barad-dur! Orcs are massing in the Misty Mountains—

Mrs Gandalf (wearily): The clocks went back.

Gandalf: What?

Mrs Gandalf: The clocks went back yesterday.

Gandalf: Yesterday?

Mrs Gandalf: It was on the TV: “News From Bree at Ten”.

Gandalf: You know I stopped watching that after they replaced Jeremy Paxman with the Mouth of Sauron. Now it’s all fake news! No, I must summon the White Council. Where’s my wizardly staff?

Mrs Gandalf: It’s propping up that wonky bookcase on the landing. And before you ask, your robe’s in the wash.

Gandalf: In the wash?

Mrs Gandalf: Yes. It looked like you’d been sleeping in it down in a mine—minging, it was. There’s that bathrobe in the dresser my Mum gave you, you never wear. The one with the rabbits.

Gandalf (darkly): I know what is the matter with me. I need smoke! I have not tasted it since the morning before the snowstorm.

Mrs Gandalf: You quit, remember? After you developed that cough. You sounded like a dragon with hiccups.

Gandalf: Just a minute, just a minute! What do you mean, the clocks went back? Clocks haven’t been invented yet…

Into the woods so wild (not)

But let us draw a veil over this domestic scene and turn to happier matters. It’s time to unveil the latest project, a navy gansey in Wendy yarn. I’m de-stashing, using up some of the yarn I’ve accumulated down the years. I had nine balls of this yarn lying around: a full-size gansey in my size (“archivist extra large”) uses just under ten, so I decided to knit the welt using yarn from a leftover ball of Wendy navy, but another dye lot. It’s noticeably different in a certain light—the yarn on the welt is darker, with a dash of indigo—but it will become less so as the gansey grows; and besides, if all else fails I can always wash it with a new pair of jeans, and let the colours run amok.

Happy Halloween

I started this a few weeks back when we went down to Northampton, and I’ve been working quite hard at it: I’d like to get it finished in time for Hogmanay. The pattern is one of my absolute favourites, one of the first I ever knit. I’ve said before that I want to revisit some of these classics—in my end is my beginning, as Mary Queen of Scots sadly embroidered during her long English imprisonment—before I eventually hang up my needles for good. And it’s fun to look back down the years and remember the me who knit this twenty years ago—a stranger to me now, with hair and a waistline.

More about the pattern next week. Now I’ve just noticed these fiery letters appearing on my circular needle: “Nine balls for mortal men, doomed to dye… / One needle to cast them all on / One needle to fit them / One needle to cable and purl / And in the darkness knit them / In the land of Caithness, where the shadows lie…

Scotland, Weeks 10-11: 23 October

Have you ever heard of rope core memory? No, me neither. But in effect it means hand-knitted computer software, and it was used to navigate the Apollo moon landings safely to the Moon and back.

We first learned of this when we were driving through the beautiful (but damp) Border country on our way to the English border (driving time from Wick: 8 hours), listening to classical music radio. Sadly the BBC is under the impression that no one nowadays wants to listen to classical music for more than ten minutes at time, so they fill up the Radio 3 schedules with prattle: at such moments I usually switch it off, harrumph and write letters in green ink to the Times (or at least the Radio Times) bemoaning the collapse of Western Civilisation; but as I was driving, with all those badgers and red deer and wildebeest to avoid, and not having my fountain pen to hand, the moment passed.

Well, the programme was fascinating. As I understand it, conventional computer memory back then just didn’t have the capacity for the complicated processing required to navigate such vast distances. But, as we all know, knitting is essentially binary: replace knit and purl stitches with ones and zeroes and you can perform (literally) astronomical calculations. Teams of experienced knitters were employed to weave copper wire either through a magnetic core (a knit stitch, or 1) or around it (a purl, or 0). As a result you could store about 18 times as much memory per cubic foot than conventional methods.

The engineers referred to it as “LOL memory”, for “little old ladies”—be still my aching sides—but the astronauts at least seem to have valued the women’s contribution to the Apollo missions. And how could they not? Their lives were (again, literally) in those ladies’ skilled hands. [and here’s a short video on YouTube.]

In gansey news, we have lift off too, in a manner of speaking. I finished the Scottish-bepatterned gansey while we were down in Northampton, and it’s been washed and blocked and handed over to its new owner already, driven off the forecourt and out into the world. This is very much a Scottish “Sunday best” sort of gansey, and the colour really shows off the elaborate pattern combination. But as ever, I’m already onto the next project, in navy—not sure what the pattern will be yet, but probably something a little simpler—something that doesn’t involve a slide rule, let alone rope core memory.


Anyway, I can’t help thinking of all the useful numbers I could encode into a gansey. The lock code on my phone, for example. The number of my landline telephone. The date of one’s wedding anniversary, on the remote, very remote, chance that one was, as it were, perhaps the merest smidgeon absent-minded on the subject. The grid coordinates of all one’s assets, buried in a field for one’s heirs and assigns to find and so avoid inheritance tax. Hmm. Now I come to think of it, one gansey may not be enough…