We’re past the autumn solstice, the clocks have gone back and it’s almost Halloween—and outside it’s wild, wet and desolate enough to send one of the Bronte sisters reaching for her pen and racking her brains for something to rhyme with “Byronic”—so it must be time for a new gansey project.
By a stroke of luck, here’s one I prepared earlier: it’s the gansey worn by the vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall. I’ve always liked those simple patterns that rely on contours and texture, and this is one my favourites. It has a plain body and a patterned yoke, and the effect is a little like the Lizard pattern I knitted back in the 1890s for my old friend Ian.
I’m knitting it in Frangipani heather yarn, which should set off the pattern nicely. (Great sculptors like Michelangelo were said to be able to see the perfect realisation of their sculptures in an uncut block of marble; I have a lesser talent—I can see the pattern of an unknit gansey in a cone of 5-ply.) Besides, I’m feeling unusually patriotic about my adopted country just now, and nothing quite symbolises the Scottish Highlands like heather.
I’m knitting it for myself. I measure a squishy 42 inches round the chest; I’m aiming for about 46 inches in the round and so, with a stitch gauge of 8 stitches to the inch—and with a little bit of fiddling to finesse the pattern (which we’ll come to in a week or two)—I’m knitting 374 stitches in the round. (I cast on 340 stitches for the welt, and increased by 34 at the body.)
It’s going to be quite long in the body, a real bum-hugger; it will be 27.5 inches from top to bottom. The ribbed welt was 4 inches long, and there will be 9 inches of plain knitting before I can start the pattern, and as I’m on holiday this week, that may not take long.
Totem Poles, Dunnet Forest
We survived ex-hurricane Gonzalo last week, thanks for all the good wishes, though it was pretty wild for a time. I rashly walked to work and found myself almost running at one point as a gust of wind pushed me violently from behind, as though God didn’t want me to be late. It was like being beset by the poltergeists of ex-rugby players. But even though it passed, Scotland’s being battered by wave after wave of wind and rain just now; so all in all I think I’m going to take ‘holidaying at home’ literally this week…
Charlotte’s smile is ironic
As she practices looking sardonic;
But Emily just glares,
Says, “Don’t give yourself Eyres,
Mr Rochester’s far too Byronic”.
And there we have it: the John Knaggs gansey is finished, washed and blocked and ready for the coming of winter. It’s taken just under three months, which may be the fastest gansey I’ve ever knit.
It helps that Derek, the friend it’s intended for, is a trim 38-inch chest. The jumper is blocked to 42 inches in the round, allowing him plenty of room, but as with any gansey involving body-length ridges or furrows it can be expanded quite a bit further if required—if, say, Derek ever acquires a taste for that rare Scottish delicacy, the deep-fried Mars bar.
It’s 25 inches long, and cuff to cuff it measures 51½ inches (though the fold-back cuffs offer further flexibility). If I were ever to knit the pattern again—which, at the moment, seems unlikely—I’d use slightly fewer stitches, or add cables to pull it in. The constant in-and-out of seed stitch and basket stitch does seem to have impacted on my stitch gauge.
Meanwhile, as I’m between ganseys, I decided to try my hand again at bread making this weekend. Alas, both my flour and yeast were past their use-by dates: even after a quarter of an hour of desperate kneading, which looked at though I was trying to administer CPR to a lifeless albino puppy, the dough stubbornly refused to rise. It lay there on the counter, flat and inert, like the brain of a deceased aquatic mammal ready for dissection, and it was pronounced dead at the scene. (I left it out for the seagulls, which explains why I found so many rolling on the ground groaning this morning, too heavy to take off.)
On a calm day . . .
I have another gansey project lined up, one that will take me into the New Year, and it’s another one for me (well, you can never have too many ganseys, can you?). But I’ll say more about that next week; for, you see, we have the remnants of ex-hurricane Gonzalo to deal with first, which is barrelling in towards Wick like a bowling ball aiming for a perfect strike.
Winds of 60-80 m.p.h. are predicted tonight and tomorrow (when they said we’d be blown away by the scenery of Caithness they weren’t kidding). The trees have lost most of their leaves already in the autumn gales; to be honest I’ll be grateful if we still have any trees left by Tuesday night. So forgive the brevity of this weeks’ blog: we’re off to batten down all available hatches and lash ourselves to the cooker, just in case.
And if you look out your window tomorrow morning and see someone in a fisherman’s sweater shooting past like a human cannonball on his way to Iceland, chances are it’ll be me…
CCC = 300 in Roman numerals
Well now, here’s a milestone: this will be my 300th post on this blog. It’s time to get misty-eyed, nostalgic and sentimental, and also to spare a moment to wonder how on earth we got here; as Winston Churchill might have said, never in the field of human conflict has so much been written by one person for so many about so few (jumpers).
Margaret and I started the blog back in 2008, when we lived in Somerset. Since then I lost my job; got a new one and relocated to Edinburgh; resigned from it after a year (working for archivists—what was I thinking?); spent 18 months unemployed, flirting with novel writing, bread making and despair; and finally found a job as the Caithness archivist three years ago this week and moved to Wick.
And all of these events have been mapped out, one gansey at a time, on this blog. In short, it’s been an eventful few years, but hopefully the worst is now behind us; one day I may even be able to go to sleep with the lights off.
I’ve been pushing hard to finish the John Knaggs gansey, putting in double-shifts and spending a couple of hours a night beavering away. It’s paid off, as I’ve managed to complete the second sleeve as far as the cuff; all that remains is the small matter of six inches of ribbing and we’re home and dry…
… or as dry as the Caithness weather allows. We had one of those storms last week, high tides combined with gale force winds blowing the waves inland, flooding parts of the harbour, washing over the lighthouse and exploding against the rocks in the bay, the wind whipping the spray in your face like salt rain. And yet today it’s settled down to crisp, clear, frosty, still, beautiful autumn weather. Go figure.
A couple of parish notices. First of all, many thanks to Jai for letting me know that Gladys Thompson’s Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys & Arans: Fishermen’s Sweaters from the British Isles is now available in a kindle edition, and is currently for sale at half price, in the UK at least. (I downloaded a copy; it’s come across pretty well, though not all the photos are as good as the print version.)
Secondly, please take a moment to look at Serena’s blog for English Heritage on drowned fishermen being identified by their ganseys. If you have any comments or observations, please let Serena know.
And so, here we are. I still can’t quite believe we’ve reached 300 posts; I can imagine an uncomfortable interview ahead with the Recording Angel outside the pearly gates, as he consults his ledger and looks up at me thoughtfully and says, ‘You spent your life doing what…?’
Ah, well. A couple of weeks ago I quoted some lines from Bob Dylan’s classic song ‘Mississippi’. It seems appropriate to end on a couple more:
‘But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free,
I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who sailed with me…’
The Rollright Stones are a collection of Stone Age/Bronze Age stones down by the Oxfordshire-Warwickshire border, just over an hour’s drive from my parents’ house where we were staying last week. And if that wasn’t cool enough, they even have their own legend.
The King’s Men
In fact the Rollrights consist of three discrete monuments. In a field next to the road lie the King’s Men, a circle of 77 stones; four hundred metres east of these sits a smaller heap known as the Whispering Knights, as if someone had been trying to build a card house out of stones (the remains of an ancient burial chamber); and in a separate field on the other side of the road lies a single solitary monolith, the King Stone.
These stones were part of my growing up, my country’s own ancient monument; and while away south Stonehenge sold herself in tawdry burlesque shows for tourist dollars, the Rollrights rested in quiet seclusion, much as they’d done for thousands of years, our little secret, enigmatic, English and mysterious.
The Whispering Knights
Of course it couldn’t last: revisiting them last week after a decade or more we found a warden in attendance, brochures, dog walkers, tourists, chatter, even the local astronomy club sitting in a row, telescopes pointed at the clouds, their backs to the stones. It seems a pity—but still, when the people have all gone home, the stones remain; quietly giving the landscape meaning.
But what, you ask, about the legend? Well, actually there are two: the first, which we’ve already disproved, is that you can never count them and get the same number twice. The other is that they are an ancient king and his followers turned to stone by a witch. The best thing about this is her curse:
‘Rise up stick and stand still stone, For King of England thou shalt be none;
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be, And I myself an elder tree!’
Isn’t the language great? You can see where Tolkien got a lot of his folk idiom from. I also like the fact that she curses herself at the same time, and like to think that her last words, as her arms turned to branches and her feet took root in the earth, were, ‘Oh, bugger!’
The Hill o’ Many Stanes
I took a break from knitting while we were away, but having had a few days to recover from the jetlag of driving 600 miles in a day I’ve made rapid progress, and have almost finished the first sleeve—always assuming I don’t have to rip these ones out and re-do them, like last time. (I’m also trying to get as much done as possible before the clocks go back and it’s too dark for navy yarn.) I picked up 110 stitches around the armholes and decreased at two stitches every fourth row.
Now we’re back I can appreciate the loneliness of the Caithness landscape. The ancient monuments up here may be less dramatic—the Hill o’Many Stanes is more like a Stone Age rockery than a ceremonial relic—but they’re every bit as ancient and mysterious. And if the British landscape is a palimpsest in which different cultures have written their own history, it’s nice to have some peace and quiet in which to read it.
Apologies for the late post – due to circumstances beyond our control (the site was moved to a new server) – we were unable to publish on time. Ed.
I know I said I wasn’t going to do an entry this week, but as I’ve just finished the neck I thought I’d post this while we’re away in rural Northants (think of this as a ‘post restante’).
Now, my second-favourite Bob Dylan song is the sublime “Mississippi”, an amazing jumble of images about life and death, all delivered in the strangled croak of an elderly raven with laryngitis who’s decided to become a folk singer.
It’s full of wonderful lines that mean a lot to me (e.g., “Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay/ You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way”); and my favourites are “Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees/ Feeling like a stranger nobody sees”.
Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags and the Pentlands from across the Firth
We’re into autumn now and this line plays in my mind every time I find myself scrunching through the fallen leaves down by the river (it doesn’t take long, of course, as there aren’t that many trees in Caithness).
Bearing that in mind, a curious thing happened to me the other day. I was strolling along the river when a woman who was walking her dog stopped me as I passed. ‘Excuse me,’ she said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, but we see you walking here every day, and we were wondering who you were?’
Haws and lichen
Once I got over my surprise, it turned out that, far from being a stranger nobody sees, the good people of Wick had been noticing me all the time and, since I appeared to be a fixture, had decided it was time to place me. (I mentioned this to my colleague at work, a native herself, and she looked at me like I’d just discovered Santa wasn’t real. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘People ask about you all the time.’) Dog walkers. Who knew?
Meanwhile, I’ve emailed Dylan and suggested that in future he change the lyric to more of a Caithness vibe: “Walking through the leaf, falling from the tree/ Feeling like a stranger with zero anonymity…”
Still haven’t heard back, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.
See you next week!