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Flamborough, Week 3: 21 May

We’re back in Caithness, after a gentle 600-mile drive. We did it all in a day—it was either that or watch the royal wedding—8.00am to 8.00pm. And it was like travelling back in time. We left Northamptonshire in early summer and arrived back to find Caithness in early spring. (This is probably something to do with relativity, e=mc²: where “e” equals the number of roadworks on the M6 motorway; “m” is the number of bikers who overtook us; and “c” is equal to the curse words we used when other drivers cut us up, squared because this happened rather a lot.)

The Lake, Delapré

It’s 11ºC in Wick today, grey skies and a cool breeze, and that fine drizzly rain the Scots call smirr. (This always makes me imagine the baby Jesus being born in the Highlands by some cosmological error, and three wise men turning up in Celtic football shirts, saying, “We bring you gifts of gold, frankincense and smirr. And an umbrella”.) It’s only a couple of days since we were strolling round the lake at Delapre Abbey in our shirtsleeves, dodging the goslings and illegal campers, everyone basking in the sun like lizards on a rock. Now the world outside is blurred as the smirr coats my glasses in fine droplets of Scotch mist and I wonder if I packed away my winter clothes too soon.

Non-whomping willows at Delapré

I took the gansey with me and managed a bit of knitting around work commitments, which mostly consisted of sitting stationery in traffic jams wondering how people could live like this. The pattern’s starting to develop nicely: I’ve always liked the Flamborough patterns, and one of the things I particularly like about this one is the way the narrow columns flank the cables and moss stitch, like the slender pillars in a Gothic cathedral, great weight supported on delicate flutes of stone.

Gorse at Helmsdale

One sight to gladden the heart on returning to the Highlands is all the gorse, just coming into full flower. It covers the hillsides in a glorious display of yellow, as though the Martians had decided to try to conquer the earth again, only this time with yellow, instead of red weed. In places where it appears in patches I was reminded of blooms of lichen dappling an ancient church wall. The village of Helmsdale, just over the border in Sutherland, sits beneath a  great dome of a hill which is wall-to-wall in gorse, so much that it’s probably visible from space. It’s just gorgeous, and it really is worth paying the price of losing a few degrees in temperature and gaining a raincoat just to be here to witness it.

Flamborough, Week 2: 14 May

Work has taken me south this week, to Oxfordshire, but within commuting distance of the ancestral home in bosky Northants. And what a change six hundred miles makes.

There are trees – no really, actual trees – growing all over the place. And everything’s green, everything’s blooming. The trees and hedges are out, there’s hawthorn blossom, lilac, horse chestnuts, cow parsley and nettles, and so many dandelion spores floating in the air you can’t help wondering if it isn’t time God changed his dandruff shampoo. Spring is literally in the air, displaying the kind of fecund profusion that would’ve had DH Lawrence lying down in a dark room until the shivering stopped.

Delapré Abbey Park, Northampton

The air is very still, too. I’m used to the uncompromising winds of Caithness, but here smoke from a distant fire rises almost vertically, eventually becoming lost in a smudge of haze and cloud. Back home, the wind acts like a sort of celestial leaf blower; when you stop to think about it, it’s not hard to imagine why smoke signals never really took off in Caithness.

Rain, Caithness

In the fields, lambs are – to use my favourite old Scots word – friskling. We learned a new ovine term this week: “hefting”. It’s a northern word for sheep that’ve been bred and trained to graze within a defined pasture, so they don’t go wandering off. One day a Sockeye salmon from Idaho will encounter a north British sheep – in a bar, say – and the salmon will do the piscine equivalent of a facepalm when it realises the whole arduous business of travelling 900 miles and climbing 7,000 feet just to spawn can be avoided by simply staying at home and watching tv – and a continent’s ecology will change overnight…



This pattern is taken from Michael Pearson [2015 edition, p.71, Misses Major’s Pattern]. Basically, it’s just as Michael describes, with a couple of minor tweaks. (And why would I want to change it anyway? It’s such a perfect combination.) I’ve always liked double moss stitch diamonds, just because of the way they seem to recede into the fabric, rather than sitting on the surface. All I’ve really done is adjust a couple of widths.

But first of all, my standard 46-inch-in-the-round ganseys have 368 stitches (at a gauge of 8 stitches per inch). These days I usually add an extra stitch for each cable, to compensate for the way cables pull the garment in. So, this gansey needs to be 368 + 8 stitches (i.e., one stitch for each cable) = 376. So that’s roughly how many stitches in the round I need.

The original pattern has just one purl stitch either side of the cables, but I prefer to have two, so I’ve changed that in my gansey. Finally, after some experimentation, I found that if I increased the width of the diamonds from 15 stitches in the original to 17 it gave me 378 stitches in total. Close enough for jazz! (N.B., I’m cabling every seventh row – the cable is the left-hand panel in my diagram.)

The yarn, as I said last week, is Frangipani Breton, a beautiful coppery rusty orangey red. For some reason I’ve always thought of the Flamborough patterns in shades of red – the consequence of the photos in the books all being black and white, I suppose: I supplied my own colours in my head – and this seems like a perfect match between colour and pattern.

Flamborough, Week 1: 7 May

It’s May, which always makes me think of the days when I used to rise early enough to dance the sun up on Brackley Market Square. Sunrise there comes a little after 5.30am this time of year, a fact which the residents of Brackley could appreciate at first hand once we started playing music, banging drums and dancing the Morris outside their windows.

It’s a couple of decades since I last shook a bell in anger, but I’m delighted to say that the custom continues to this day, as it does in towns and villages all over England. Tradition is like a vast relay race with the ages: you’re handed the baton from the distant past and, trying desperately not to drop it, you hand it on. People always get folk wrong, by trying to understand it. You can’t; not really. But if you’re lucky, and if you respect it, sometimes you’re allowed to do it right.

I used to love getting up for May Day. There’s something about being up while the world’s still abed that feels like a privilege—you get first use of the day, while it’s still fresh, full of unbreathed oxygen. The folk-rock group Oysterband do a fantastic version of the May song Hal-an-Tow (“Hal-an-Tow, jolly rumbelow/ We were up, long before the day-oh/ Well, to welcome in the summertime, to welcome in the May-oh/ For summer is a-coming in, and winter’s gone away”). It’s exhilarating, and captures the excitement of Maytime for me: maybe not enough get me out of bed for 5.30am, but enough to make me feel vaguely guilty and play some folk music by way of expiation.

St Fergus’ Church from the riverside path

Incidentally, have you ever stopped to consider the role the correct footwear plays in folk songs?

Gordon (on the right) dancing the morris

[The squire in the courtyard giving orders] “You there: go saddle for me the bonny brown steed, the grey was never so speedy-oh.”
“Um, excuse me, Squire?”
“Hello, yes? What?”
“Well, I’m sorry to trouble you, but I write the songs down in the village.”
“Look, I’m rather busy just now. Can’t it wait?”
“Well, you see, I understand you’re going after your lady wife, who’s absconded with Black Jack Davey, right? Well, there’s going be a fine ballad in all of this, I can tell, but I was just wondering about your shoes.”
“My shoes? What about them?”
“Well, they’re more what you’d call rubber boots, don’t you see. Wellingtons.”
“Were you by any chance going to be tripping o’er the heather?”
“I might be. Possibly. Damp stuff, heather.”
“In wind and rainy weather?”
“According to the forecast there’s a deep depression moving over the country, bringing an 85% chance of precipitation, so yes, probably.”
“And if you meet up with your good lady, do you think you’ll be pointing out to her the advantages of sleeping on a good soft bed made of goose feather? Instead of, as it might be, the cold, hard ground?”
“I say, that’s a bit personal. Keep it clean.”
“What I’m driving at—the point I’m trying to make—you couldn’t see your way to wearing boots of Spanish leather, by any chance? It’d make my job so much easier. For the rhymes, don’t you know.”
“Sorry, wellies it is.” [The squire mounts his bonny brown steed] “Still, look on the bright side. After all, it could’ve been worse.”
“Oh? How?”
“My other shoes are flip-flops. Hi-yo Brownie, away!”

Duncansby Stacks

And yes, it’s a new gansey, based on a couple of classic Flamborough patterns, knitted in the gorgeous coppery hues of Frangipani Breton. I’ll say more about this next week, and hopefully include a pattern chart and full specs. But for now there’s blossom on the plum tree, and, as my old friend Alf Tennyson once observed, “To-morrow ‘ill be the happiest time of all the glad New-year/ Of all the glad New-year, mother, the maddest merriest day/ For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May/ It’s a shame about the beard, mother, but at least I’ve the legs for a dress/ Just don’t put that razor away, mother, I want to look my best.” Ah, tradition—makes you proud, doesn’t it?

Inverallochy, Week 18: 30 April

I’ve been immersing myself in Zen poetry these last few days, and I think there’s probably a good reason why Zen originated as an Eastern philosophy, rather than in the North. We have our own religious traditions, of course—all those witches won’t burn themselves, after all—but it’s also a question of climate.

Achavanich stones and distant mountains

Take the 12th century Chinese philosopher-poet To Fu, who came to Caithness on his travels. One verse fragment written at John O’Groats records the moment his meditations were interrupted by a force nine gale: 

How lovely the cherry blossom—
Bugger, no, it’s gone,
Scattered somewhere in the general direction of Norway.
Well there goes my best chance of enlightenment
This side of Christmas,
Thank you so very bloody much.

It was To who famously discovered a solution to the celebrated Zen koan, What is the sound of one hand clapping? Driven half-mad one afternoon by his master’s repeatedly asking this question, he jumped to his feet, shouted “This is, you old fool!” and landed a sweet right hook on his master’s jaw, lifting him several inches off the mat and knocking him out. Afterwards he justified his actions by saying that he had freed his master from the burden of consciousness, which was as near to enlightenment as any of them were likely to get so close to teatime on a Sunday. (Later that day he left the school and started his wanderings.)

High Rise Living – Guillemots nesting on cliff

And, as To later remarked to his disciples, it is hard to free yourself from the endless cycle of death and rebirth when you keep checking your phone to see the latest score in the match between Manchester United and Arsenal, yes, you at the back Little Chrysanthemum, I’m talking to you.

And the gansey is finished! As I’ve mentioned before, at such moments I celebrate along with Wagner’s Wotan, chief of the gods, when he realises the fortress of Valhalla has been built: Vollendet das ewige werk, the eternal task is completed. But soon comes the moment in the time of every such gift, when the euphoria of getting it done is gradually replaced by the nerve-shredding anxiety of seeing if it fits…

Who knew? A statue of Abraham Lincoln in Edinburgh

Finally this week, we’ve been listening to Kipling’s The Jungle Book as an audiobook while we knit. And there’s one rather lovely story, of a successful man of the world called Purun Baghat who gives everything up to become a holy man. I thought I’d share with you this beautiful passage:

Yet nothing was farther from his mind than miracles. He believed that all things were one big Miracle, and when a man knows that much he knows something to go upon. He knew for a certainty that there was nothing great and nothing little in this world: and day and night he strove to think out his way into the heart of things, back to the place whence his soul had come.

Which, now I come to think about it, will do until actual enlightenment comes along. Well, that and knitting another gansey…

Inverallochy, Week 17: 23 April

First of all, apologies for the lack of progress this week. You see, we’re off down south for a few days—left on Friday in fact—and the gansey’s had to stay behind. (I’ve learned caution: the last time I tried to take knitting this big over the border I was suspected of sheep rustling.) Even so, I am practically, agonisingly, almost to the cuff; another week will see it finished.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d share with you a couple of fun things I learned this week about D-Day, the Allied landings of June 1944 to liberate Western Europe. Both, as it happens, involve parachutes.

The first one involved dropping dummy parachutists (known delightfully as “Ruperts”) to confuse the enemy. These were three feet tall man-shaped cloth bags filled with sand and attached to parachutes. About 500 were dropped the night before the invasion, in places where troops weren’t actually going to land. To add to the effect, real soldiers dropped alongside the dummies, with record players and fireworks: they played recordings of gunfire and set off the fireworks so that in the blackness of night it seemed like a major battle was taking place.

St Fergus’ in the Fog

Now that is rather brilliant, but I think the other idea is even better. The Allies desperately needed all the information they could get about the German defences and the troops stationed along the Normandy coast. So what they did, they parachuted cages with homing pigeons in them over the fields near the Channel, hoping French farmers would find them.

Sketching au plein air

In each cage, along with a pigeon, the farmer would find a set of instructions, some feed, a pencil and a piece of paper. All they had to do was feed the bird, write down any information they thought would be useful, tie it to the pigeon’s leg and set it free—whereupon it would fly straight back to Britain with the priceless intelligence.

Isn’t that great? Such a simple idea, and apparently very effective. Of course, you ran the risk of the Germans finding the birds first and writing notes to say the guns were all made out of chocolate, or something; just as I like to think of the dummy parachutists getting their record collections mixed up, so that sleepy Germans would be roused by a firework display to the accompaniment of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” or “In the Mood”, the 1944 equivalent of a rave…

Normal service will be resumed next week, with hopefully the happy ending.