Wick lies on the south side of a long promontory that stretches out into the North Sea, with the lighthouse at Noss Head gleaming on the farthest tip like the red nose of Rudolph the eponymous reindeer. On the north side, overlooking Sinclair’s Bay, is the ruined castle of Sinclair Girnigoe where we went at Easter.
Usually when I think of castles I imagine the great Welsh and English fortresses of Harlech or Warwick, the kind of buildings a Dark Lord would besiege with an army of orcs. Caithness is different: here the castles are perched on thin slivers of rock jutting into sea from the local inlets or goes like hangnails on a giant’s big toe.
Sinclair Girnigoe is a hell of a location, just the wide sweep of the bay and the ocean before you and the narrow promontory at your back. It was more or less impregnable before the age of cannon, as from the sea you’re faced with sheer cliffs and the only way in by land was over the drawbridge. It’s all ruins now, the haunt of a rather sharp wind and some stroppy seagulls which perch on the crumbling walls flipping coins and spitting out of the corner of their beaks.
Sinclair Girnigoe is about the same size as our house and garden, though to be fair no one’s ever tried to assault us in Miller Avenue using cannon – yet. Still, inspired by this I may submit a planning application for a drawbridge and portcullis, if only to keep out trick-or-treaters at Halloween, and especially the neighbours’ cats.
In knitting news, I’m settling into a groove with the Flamborough gansey, and the pattern is starting to emerge more clearly. It’s an easy one to keep track of, with a change every two rows. (Incidentally, is it just me or does knitting a gansey always feels like cloning an old fisherman from the bottom up?)
Finally this week, a word about the new edition of Michael Pearson’s Traditional Knitting. I received my copy last week, and although I haven’t had a chance to go through it in detail, a few points stand out. First of all it’s significantly expanded, and now includes patterns and photographs from his other books, such as the one on the Scottish fleet; secondly it now includes more charts, as well as an index; and thirdly the photographs are sharper than before, the patterns easier to make out.
So, if you already have the original is this new edition worth buying? My opinion is, yes, definitely, it’s much more than just a reissue. And if you don’t already have it, well, what are you waiting for…?
Well, what a difference a few days can make! We spent the week before Easter at my parents’ house in the Midlands: the main Wick-Northampton superhighway passes through the Cairngorms, and on the way down we had about a hundred miles of snow to contend with in temperatures of -1ºC. (Just past Inverness we ran into something of a blizzard, crawling along at about 20 mph with fat snowflakes smacking into the windshield like a ghostly flock of kamikaze sparrows.)
But when we came back just five days later the weather had broken and it was 20º, and we breezed through the Highlands in our shirtsleeves with the windows open, watching the buzzards wheeling against clear blue skies high above the forests, holding out our hands to let butterflies alight on them, that kind of thing. Temperatures got so warm that for a time we had to tape together two of our Caithness thermometers just to find out how hot it was.
It’s all changed back again now, and there’s a sharp north wind with rain spattering the window as I type, but change is definitely in the air; it may still feel like winter, but it looks like spring. And who knows—short-sleeved shirts may once again be part of my life. (If my toes didn’t resemble rheumatic parsnips I’d even consider dusting off the old sandals, but out of respect for my fellow men I’ll hold off for now.)
A new season, a new project: this time, it’s a traditional Flamborough gansey in Frangipani Claret yarn. I’ve always found the patterns of the north-east of England to be among the very finest, a perfect combination of aesthetics and function. And after all the fine detail of the Wick gansey, I wanted to knit something simple—where I didn’t have to study the chart every three minutes—and, of course, it was time for another pattern with cables.
The body consists of 364 stitches, and the pattern alternates diamond panels with moss stitch and cables. (I’ll hopefully post a pattern chart next week, but—get me—I haven’t actually drawn one up yet; that’s how easy it is!)
Finally this week, Judit’s been busy again, with a jumper that cleverly uses old yarn in coloured pattern bands. As she says, ”The colours are those of the sky, blue with white and gray clouds. I put a little flower on it, just a sign of spring.” It’s a very effective combination, with something of a nautical air about it, too—and, of course, perfect for the changing of the seasons…
As promised, here is the finished Wick gansey, blocked and ready to go. The pattern still remains something of an enigma, but it is what it is, and so I send it out into the world to take its chances, in much the same spirit as my teachers parted with me at the end of my schooldays: unsure if I’d end up as prime minister or on death row—or possibly both.
We’re just starting our Easter break, and will be spending the next few days at my parents’ house in Northamptonshire, out of reach of the modern world, or at least that part of it that involves the internet. So apologies: I won’t be able to respond to any posts or emails this week.
There’s just one parish notice: Bobbins of Whitby have moved—please see their comment on the Suppliers page for further information, and we wish them all the best in their new home.
As it’s not a regular blog this week I hope you won’t mind if instead I share something with you. One of my favourite books is a slim little volume by the German author Hermann Hesse called Wandering, published in 1920 and consisting of brief essays, sketches and poems inspired by a walking tour he made over the Alps into Italy.
It’s a sentimental, naïve, thoughtful, wise and touching collection, out of print now as the values Hesse espoused are seemingly out of fashion in our materialistic age.
Here’s one of my favourite passages, inspired by a mountain pass, in which he reflects on how his response to nature has changed from when he was younger:
Everything belongs to me more than ever before. It speaks to me more richly and with hundreds of nuances. My yearning no longer paints dreamy colours across the veiled distances, my eyes are satisfied with what exists, because they have learned to see. The world has become lovelier than before.
The world has become lovelier. I am alone, and I don’t suffer from my loneliness. I don’t want life to be anything other than what it is. I am ready to let myself be baked in the sun till I am done. I am eager to ripen. I am ready to die, ready to be born again.
The world has become lovelier.
Gansey Nation will be back on Monday 13th April; till then—happy Easter from Gordon and Margaret!
There was a partial eclipse last week, and we were fortunate that the clouds parted just enough to let us see the sun reduced to a brilliant golden crescent. In fact, the clouds added to the spectacle, roiling furiously around the eclipse like smoke, as though some vast celestial weapon was being forged in the heavens.
In olden times, people thought of eclipses as harbingers of mighty events; and this is still the case today, as I bring you tidings of great joy: for lo, the Wick gansey is complete.
I still have the ends to darn in, and then it has to be washed and blocked, but those are mere details. It’s done as done, the best use of a leftover stash of navy yarn as I can think of. We’re going to take a break over Easter as we go down south to visit my parents, but we’ll put up pictures of the blocked and bedarned gansey next Monday to round off this project.
Before then I have to pay a visit to the doctor’s to get my ears syringed. I’d never really thought much about earwax till now; it’s just been there, like nature’s play dough. In fact, as a result of reading a particular horror story as a child, I’d always assumed it’s main purpose was to act as a barrier so that tropical caterpillars couldn’t crawl inside your ear and lay its eggs in your brain.
New Keiss Castle
Now for no reason at all mine has caused me to go partly deaf, or makes a sound inside my head like a slug crawling over a microphone; it affects my sense of balance so that I tend to walk like someone crossing Niagara Falls on a unicycle. Sometimes it partially melts in the night and I awake to the sound of bursting bubbles, as though Fairy Earwax had paid me a visit and was sticking her index finger in her mouth and popping it out at me with a wet smack. (Sometimes I swear I can hear sniggering in the darkness.)
The cure isn’t much better, to be frank, consisting of a pressurised jet of water fired into the ear in the hopes of flushing out the offending substance, along with any caterpillar eggs that may be lodged in there, loose bits of brain, that sort of thing. Isn’t growing old fun?
Still, once it’s over I’ll be able to start rebuilding my life, planning the next project. Time to revisit an old favourite, I think—and looking at the dregs of my teacup and swirling the leaves, I think I can see cables coming back into my life after a long break…
The good news is, I’m on my feet again, the worst of my cold being over; the bad news is, I feel like I’ve been assembled from a variety of badly fitting parts, none of which seems to work properly—a sort of Frankenstein’s Archivist, lumbering across the countryside, scaring villagers and randomly cataloguing old documents.
I’m tired most of the time, and sleep like the dead—except for the weird, vivid dreams. The other night I dreamed that Batman was being psychoanalysed: the analyst kept explaining what aspects of his psyche his enemies represented—the Joker, and the Penguin—while a frustrated Batman was explaining that no, they were real people, real criminals he had to fight. (I woke up before the end; hope it worked out okay—Batman really looks like a guy who needs help.)
Meanwhile, spring has come to Caithness; or, if she hasn’t actually arrived, is peeking through a crack in the door, checking out if it’s safe. The snowdrops are out, the gorse is just coming into bloom, and the birds outside the window sound like a handful of pennies in the tumble drier (or at least they do at 4.00am, blast them).
It’s still windy and cold—about 5-7ºC—but on Sunday the sun shone bright and clear. Soon I’ll ask Margaret to fetch the secateurs and cut me out of the greased bearskin I’ve worn all winter, and then—who knows?—maybe it’ll even be time for my yearly bath.
I’ve been knitting assiduously, partly because I’ve been doing the plain knitting down the sleeve (much easier under artificial light than knitting the intricate pattern on this gansey) and partly because I’ve knitted myself back into the zone. I’ve finished the first sleeve and cast off, and am now well underway on the second.
It’s starting to look like a gansey at last. Most of the time it’s hard to make out the actual pattern definition, it looks like a jumble of boiled spaghetti, or Yorkshire seen from space; but then the light catches it just so and it all falls into place. But I won’t really know until it’s blocked.
I should finished it sometime in the next fortnight. (I’m already thinking of the next one, so I’m at the stage where I’m keen to move on.) Maybe then too, like an invalid who finally trusts himself to take his first few faltering steps without the aid of crutches, I’ll be able to leave the Lemsip in the box…