Summer returned this weekend, like a guest you thought had gone but who came back for her umbrella and stayed for a cup of tea and a scone; and so, as it was a warm and sunny afternoon, with a light sea breeze and blue skies from horizon to horizon, we jumped in the car and went to Lybster. (Seeing the sun acts on us much as the bat-signal affects Batman; we change clothes and jump in the car—with only this difference, that he combats flamboyant villains, whereas we go out for tea and cakes.)
Lybster (the y is pronounced long, to rhyme with “lie” and not “lip”) is a small fishing village with semi-detached harbour, thirteen miles south of Wick. You can drive all the way down to the harbour, but we parked up in the village and walked the steep road to sea level. That way we got a stunning view of the harbour and the sun-dappled sea beyond, framed by the jagged cliffs that shelter the bay; and also of the Reisgill burn, the stream that plunges down from a rocky defile and runs into the sea.
Like so many of the east coast harbours, Lybster was developed for the herring fishing. It’s said that in Victorian times the fleet consisted of some 357 boats (which seems an awful lot to me, but who am I to argue with the internet?), and 50,000 barrels of herring were shipped out each year; now there are just a handful of small boats fishing for lobsters and crabs.
But Lybster harbour has two things going for it the other little Caithness harbours we’ve visited don’t: a café, and tourists. A former smokehouse has been converted into a café and visitor centre, and on Sunday several people were sitting outside in the sunshine, having a drink and watching the waves breaking on the shingle beach, and the seabirds wheeling below the cliffs, with that peaceful vacancy of mind that comes from a sunny day and nothing particular to do. (If I’m honest, my idea of an afterlife would be much like this; especially if, as Lybster did, it involves ice cream.)
I’ve had a cold—one of those tiresome sort that leaves you constantly fatigued, and in need of a sympathetic person to bathe your temples in lavender water every few minutes (I did suggest this to my colleague at work, but she was surprisingly unenthusiastic). As a result I’ve really got my head down and done a lot of knitting, and am now embarked on the gussets.
I should have said last week, I cast on 312 stitches, which I increased to 336 after the welt. (I’m still working to my new, looser stitch gauge of 8 stitches to the inch.) This gives me 2 seam stitches, and 167 stitches front and back; each seam stitch is flanked by 3 plain knit stitches. The pattern consists of 13 blocks of seed stitch alternating with 12 of basket.
It’s turned cloudy again today, and the wind’s got up. But I don’t care. If I close my eyes I’m still sitting on Lybster harbour steps, the sun on my face, the cries of the birds and the crash of the waves in my ears, Orkney ice cream burning my tongue—and the long, hot walk back up the road to the village yet to do. In a couple of months the clocks go back: I’ve got to remember there can be days like this…
It’s not yet September and autumn is already knocking at the door, with chilly nights and a dusting of frost on the fields. And on a clear, bright morning like today there’s a sharpness to everything, as though God’s adjusted his binoculars and brought the world into focus. (And then it rains.)
A few weeks ago, when I realised I had to go back and re-knit the sleeves on the denim gansey, I decided to make a start on my next project, just for a change. I’ve kept it going since then, on and off, whenever the urge to put the denim one into the woodchipper grew too strong. As a result, now I come to unmask my batteries, I have eleven inches of welt and body under my needles, and suddenly it doesn’t seem so daunting.
It’s for my old friend Derek, whom I’ve known for over forty years (and if that thought doesn’t send me back to the bottle of Old Pulteney tonight, nothing will) – and will hopefully be a Christmas present for him (unless I get side-tracked again, in which case he’s likely to get it for Easter).
The pattern is John Knaggs’ from Flamborough Head, and is taken from Rae Compton, page 54. It consists of alternating bands of “birds e’en and a narrow rib with stocking stitch edge and one repeat of a basket stitch pattern in the centre”. (And if that sounds a bit too much like modern jazz you can do what I did and look at the pattern chart instead!)
This is something of a departure for me (there are no cables, for one thing), but I’ve always liked the look of it. Rae Compton suggests that the pattern “recalls a time when patterns were simpler”, but the interesting thing is just how busy, by which I mean fiddly, it is to knit—simpler doesn’t mean easier! The maximum number of plain stitches side by side you ever get is four: the rest of the time almost every stitch alternates between knit and purl. You have to pay attention.
The texture is different too, with so much seed stitch; there are times when it feels like I’m knitting a tote bag. (The ribs give it a pleated effect, as though I’m knitting a concertina; I can’t help thinking I should be able to play “Over the Hills And Far Away” while I knit.)
Gordon and the Rainbow
As for the denim gansey, I’m delighted to say that it’s finally finished—re-knit, washed and blocked. We went up to John O’Groats on Saturday for the photo shoot (yeah, give it to me, oh yeah, that’s the way, baby), dodging the squally showers. A strong wind was blowing in off the sea, and watching the tourists trying to photograph each other in the gale I realised that the famous signpost was most useful as an anchor, if not a windbreak.
The Isabella heads out to sea
What else? Oh yes, my collection of fantasy short stories, The Dragon of Stroma and Other Tales, will be free until this Friday from the Amazon kindle store.
Finally, many congratulations once again to Judit for another spiffing gansey, this time in violet, with a very effective pattern, and once again measured entirely by eye. (It was knit for another of her doctors, thus reinforcing my view that Finland is a country where the doctors are all as rugged as the landscape…)
Summer has come to an abrupt end in the north Highlands, as we’re currently being battered by strong winds and heavy rains; it’s colder too, just ten degrees this morning. (I know it all helps to keep the midges at bay, but still.)
When it rains it falls so hard the drops bounce back up off the ground like tiny tennis balls, and the puddles froth and churn as though filled with spawning frogs. The rivers are swollen and brown with mud, tumbling down from the hills; Usain Bolt could maybe play Poohsticks against the fast-moving currents, but poor Winnie the Pooh’s stubby little legs would stand no chance.
Dunnet Head from Thurso
Incidentally, if anyone was wondering what the north Caithness coastline looks like, Mercedes have helpfully filmed an advert around Dunnet Head and Duncansby. It’s pretty true to life, too: honestly, you can hardly move up here for all the famous actresses hogging the roads in their fancy cars.
On the gansey front, I’ve knuckled down and have almost finished re-knitting the second sleeve (albeit mostly through gritted teeth). But the effort has paid off, and sometime in the next few days I’ll have it finished, after which we need never speak of it again (henceforth only to be referred to as “the unpleasantness”). The gnarled and be-kinked yarn has made it hard to keep the stitches even, but as ever I’m hoping that washing and blocking will cover a multitude of sins.
While cataloguing some miscellaneous collections this week I came across some reminiscences concerning one of the old Wick harbourmasters, Captain Cormack. One of my favourite stories has him going to collect the harbour dues from a Buckie boat one Saturday night at eleven o’clock. It was summer and, of course, still perfectly light, so the crew could see him coming. As the Captain approached, the boat slipped away to the jetty, then across the bay to moor on the far North Shore. Cormack had to walk all the way around the bay to reach the boat, and when he finally caught up with it the crew were singing hymns, and the captain “was in the middle of an unctuous prayer”. The exasperated harbourmaster had had enough: “Come on, now, ye hoary hypocrite,” he cried, “pay your way and do your praying after!”
Finally this week, many congratulations to Sarah, who’s completed a rather splendid gansey, which you can see here. It’s a slightly modified version of the classic Henry Freeman pattern, and is knitted in sports weight wool; and the colour brings out the pattern very effectively.
Marcel Proust’s unnamed narrator found that a piece of madeleine cake dipped in a spoonful of tea was enough to transport him back to the days of his youth, inspiring him to write the second longest novel ever written, clocking in at over a million words. (If only, one wonders, he’d been offered a chocolate digestive instead…)
In my case it’s the sound of dice rattling on a backgammon board that takes me back – not to my childhood, but to my student days, staying up in a succession of seedy kitchens and untidy, used-sock-bestrewn bedrooms till long after midnight, playing for money, playing for notepaper, playing for the sheer fun of the thing, gambling away my youth. There’s something rather wonderful about a game when you can lose everything on the throw of a double six (odds of 35:1 against); and many’s the time I have.
Sunday morning at Dunnet Head – the Old Man of Hoy, with seabirds
I’ve been slaloming down memory lane this week because my old friend Dave, who lives in south Wales, came to visit. Dave and I were students together at Manchester University, and whereas he still looks pretty much the same, give or take the odd follicle or two, when I look in the mirror these days I seem to see one of those melting Nazis at the end of the first Indiana Jones film looking back at me.
Sunday morning at Dunnet Head – we could see nearly to Cape Wrath
We shared digs for a year at the home of Mrs Betesh in Didsbury, a short-sighted little old lady who used to scare the hell out of us every time she lit the stove. She didn’t have any eyebrows because after turning on the gas she had to search for the matchbox, fumble for a match, and after several minutes had elapsed would finally scrape it alight on the box; by this time she was usually enveloped in a shimmering haze of gas, for all the world like someone beaming down in a Star Trek episode. You could always tell when it was dinnertime because the cat came and hid under our bed, wearing a crash helmet.
Sunflowers. In France. Montagne Noire in background
Anyway, what with old friends coming to visit and all, I’ve taken a short break from the knitting. Coming back to it now after a two-week break I’m finding it hard to remember what I was doing. My fingers have forgotten how to hold the needles, and I have an urge to scoop up egg fu yung and fried rice with them rather than form stitches. Still, it’s all slowly coming back (after a piece of shortbread dipped in tea – thanks, Marcel!), and I’ve made a start on re-knitting sleeve two.
And now Dave is gone (sad face), the funfair is gone (smiley face), Margaret is back (smiley face) and the backgammon board has been put away for another few years (shruggy face); and all I have left from my misspent youth is a clear recollection of the probabilities of various dice combinations. Useless to me now, of course: unless anyone is rash enough to challenge me to a game of Monopoly, when it’s sometimes helpful, say if you are deciding where to place a hotel, to know that seven is the most likely number you can throw with two dice…
It’s been a lovely few days in Caithness, blue skies, light winds and temperatures up into the high teens. The town is full of tourists, easy to spot both by their cameras and the looks of slowly dawning horror on their faces as they realise the bars don’t open for another six hours, and every time they turn around there’s another dozen seagulls perched on the wall behind them, flipping coins and sneering.
The funfair. Not tacky in the slightest.
Summer also means the funfair’s back in town, down by the river. Each evening the peace is shattered by flashing lights and loud music, as though the mother ship from Close Encounters had arrived—always assuming that the aliens, instead of abducting people, just wanted to put them in centrifuges decorated with pictures of skinny women wearing only bikinis, Stetsons and cowboy boots.
With a whoop and a holler, embracing my inner cowgirl, I’ve finished re-knitting the first sleeve, so that now the gansey has two different sized arms; when I try it on I look like Quasimodo’s stuntman. The new sleeve hasn’t been blocked yet, so the crinkly reused yarn makes the stitches look a bit uneven—though I know this will all come out in the wash, so to speak, and even up.
I didn’t like the way the pattern continued right the way down to the very cuff before—with such a busy pattern I felt it was a kind of overkill—so I stopped a few inches short this time and had a stretch of plain knitting before the cuff, an effect I’ve always liked. Plus it’ll be handy if I ever start wearing gauntlets.
Our copy of the Fall issue of Knitscene magazine arrived this week, the one in which our blog is featured on the back page. Thanks to everyone who flagged this up last week, and a warm welcome to anyone who’s visiting for the first time. Because ganseys take a while to knit, it’s probably best to think of the blog’s archives as a sort of time-lapse snapshot of a gansey nursery.
Fame at last! (Or, if not fame, slightly less obscurity at last!)
And of course many thanks to Linda and her team for such a splendid feature, and for sportingly agreeing to use the archive picture of me taken while I still had a waist.
Wick Harbour. The sign reads: “No HGV Parking”
In parish notices, Gansey Nation will now be taking a short summer break. We’ll be back on Monday 11 August—by which time I might even be feeling strong enough to tackle the other sleeve…