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Humber 23/24: 27 February – 11 March

… And we’re back: Margaret from her jaunt with some happy memories and a cold, and I from my break with – at last – a completed gansey. It’s still to be blocked, but the cuffs are finished and all the ends are darned in and snipped off. So all we have to do now is wash it and pin it out, and hopefully next week you’ll be able to see the pattern in its natural habitat. It might even be the right size; always a bonus.

Turned out, this was a surprisingly fiddly jumper to knit: partly because of the moss stitch running the length of the body, partly because I made the classic blunder for someone with my eyesight of knitting a dark yarn in the winter months without adequate lighting; and partly because the various pattern segments don’t have regular, uniform repeats – so each bit of the pattern repeats on a different row, which means you have to concentrate. (And concentration, as we know, really isn’t my strong suit…)

But the pattern is so effective, and distinctive with its stars and especially the “hanging diamonds” (or bunches of grapes or bats) under the yoke, that I’m glad I chose it. And somehow, like Patrington and Withernsea, I shall now always now think of it in conifer green.

Otherwise, the highlight over the last couple of weeks was a business visit to the archives of Dounreay nuclear power facility, perched on the north coast crags of Caithness. You’re not allowed to take photographs, but basically the circular main reactor rises out of the flat terrain like an orange on a bookshelf.

There’s more security than getting on a plane (they have their own armed police force), and once through the gates you can’t be left unattended. They unsettle you brilliantly at reception, too, by playing a video about what do to in case of emergency (though it didn’t involve losing your head and screaming like a baby, which is probably what I’d end up doing).

I don’t know what I’d imagined – my only ideas of nuclear facilities were mostly based on James Bond films, which I appreciate may not be entirely accurate. It was a bit more lived-in than the usual Bond bad guy HQ, which always look brand new, as if they’ve just been assembled from an Ikea “supervillain lair” flatpack; but then Dounreay is older, and is in the process of being decommissioned. I used to live near a brewery in Northampton, and on the whole the site was broadly similar, with lots of large steel tanks and pipes and men in hard hats and dark glasses with machine guns (just like growing up in Northampton, in fact). All in all, it came over as a very professional, very calm, very competent – exactly what you’d hope for, in fact.

They have a small museum, and I got to handle one of the old fuel rods. In the movies these always seem to be the size of Nelson’s Column, immersed in a tank of sinister bubbling liquid. This was about the size of a rolled-up umbrella. Another illusion shattered.

The archive is expertly managed, and consists of thousands of boxes of files and papers in several strongrooms, all under heavy security. The records have to last at least as long as the nuclear material, and there’s an interesting question here about how you keep records for thousands of years. Modern paper is too highly acidic to last – just leave a newspaper on a windowsill – and electronic records change so fast they’re obsolete in no time (where do you insert an old floppy disc in a modern pc?).

Fortunately, I can leave these problems to older and wiser heads, while I revel in the luxury of no knitting deadlines and start to plan the next gansey. Something Scottish, I think. And definitely in a lighter yarn, like cream; i.e., a colour where I can actually see the pattern. I’ve been told that the Caithness summers are dazzlingly bright, but for now the dial is still set on “gloom” and I’m not taking any chances…

19 comments to Humber 23/24: 27 February – 11 March

  • Lynne

    Another beautiful project, Gordon – it’s going to be stunning when blocked and when the ‘hanging triangles’ become more distinct. I certainly enjoyed last week’s discussions re the origin of ‘gansey’.

  • Gordon

    Hi Lynne,

    And you’re back too, I’m glad to say. (I tactfully kept my head down for most of last week’s discussion, for fear of revealing my ignorance. As they say, better to keep your mouth shut and have others suspect you’re a fool, than open it and confirm their suspicions! But i thought it was a fascinating thread.) It’s odd – already the gansey feels like it was knitted by someone else and I had nothing to do with it.


  • Veronica

    All I have to say, Gordon, is that it’s a good thing (A) you knit in wool (I’m allergic) and (B) it takes a couple days travel to get to Wick from here, otherwise that gansey would be speaking Dutch! Drool.

  • Freyalyn

    How fascinating! Who’d have thought that archivists get to visit such different and interesting things. I’m looking forward to seeing the gansey blocked and on someone too.

  • Sue

    Good to see you back and the gansey completed!

    RE archiving, an organisation that I’m involved with and which is in the process of arranging for the longterm archiving of its records has been advised to print-out on specialist acid free/low acid paper everything that is currently only in electronic form on the grounds that the hardcopies will remain accessible for far longer than the digital versions.

    Remember the BBC’s Domesday revisited project – all based around creating a new ‘Domesday Book’ that would be stored on the BBCb computers produced by Acorn and put in every school in the UK? Well all that data is still stored, stuck on old bs in school storerooms around the country but it is now totally inaccessible because most schools never transferred it to a newer format when the old BBCbs were replaced by better machines!

  • Annalies

    The pattern is beautiful, i like it.

  • Gordon

    Dear Veronica, Freyalin, Sue and Annalies,

    Thank you! It’s good to be back. I was getting a bit run down, to be honest, after all the stress of moving house, a cold I couldn’t shake off, stuff in general. Still, a short break and some vitamin supplements can work wonders. It’s good to see the gansey completed, too – I’d forgotten how long they take when you have to work as well!

    Sue, I seem to remember reading that the early NASA moon landing records are also now obsolete – whereas good old egyptian papyrus is still going strong thousands of years later… And remember, people, the best way to keep your archives safe is to employ an archivist! (No home should be without one…)


  • =Tamar

    You can still buy an external 3.5-inch floppy disc drive that connects via a USB port, but I think you’d have to hire someone to build one for the 5.25 discs.
    Cameras are being made obsolete within a few years by the old trick of making the recording medium unavailable; formerly it was proprietary film, now it’s magnetic media. About the time they get the camera to be reliable, it’s obsolete. It’s enough to send one back to the days of amateur watercolors and a good sketchbook.

  • Sue

    Tamar, I think the original Acorn/BBCbs used that other obsolete medium that pre-dated even 5.25 discs – magnetic tape cassettes! I was working in a college community outreach centre at the time and I have memories of having to ‘run’ the relevant cassette first every time you wanted to use an application – in other words the programme had to be uploaded afresh each time you wanted to use it because they didn’t have a big enough memory to actually store all the applications on the machine itself.

    And this is really going to give my age away – the use of cassettes was the reason why the Acorn/BBCbs where regarded as being revolutionary because this was so much more modern and such a big improvement on the punch card systems that the the early IBM main frames worked on when I first went to University. As I understood it at the time, the humble tape cassette was what made it possible to create not only one of the first (if not the first) desktop machines in the UK but also to make it affordable enough to be able to have one in every school and college classroom.

    And this is why I still have my own personal Apple ‘archive’ of an original MacIntosh, a Per-forma, an iBook, an iMac (with a separate back-up for 3.5 discs) and, as soon as it comes out, the next version of the iPad! It might be a faff (but it is a testament to their longevity!) that I can still access everything from when I acquired that first Mac.

    And, yes, Gordon we have employed an archivist who is busily turning everything into ‘hardcopy’ with the best predcitable survival rate 🙂

    But back to the knitting – when can we expect to see a picture of the gansey in all its washed and blocked glory!

  • Gordon

    Sue, you raise an interesting question which currently faces archivists: how far should our archives be museums of old technology to read them? What do you do when they break down? (Film and television archives fight like cats when a spare part to an old machine comes up on eBay, no one makes them any more.)

    Tamar, there’s another issue around cameras – in the old days, organisations hired a photographer to take pictures, which ended up on file. Now everyone takes dozens of snaps on their camera phones, almost none of which survive. The more records we create, the fewer we save, it seems.

    Expect the grand final big reveal of the gansey next Monday – even as I type it’s pinned out on its boards, drying away…

  • Veronica

    “And remember, people, the best way to keep your archives safe is to employ an archivist! (No home should be without one…)”

    Can you be bribed with unlimited quantities of Dutch chocolate and/or cheese to come over 2-3 times per year?

  • Gordon

    Absolutely, Veronica. Like most archivists, I’m always open to bribes involving cheese and/or chocolate. I think the quickest way from Wick to Holland is by ferry from John o’ Groats to Orkney, then to Greenland, then on overland across Antarctica, catching a tramp steamer and rounding the Cape of Good Hope, a quick detour to see the lemurs of Madagascar, and then up the Gulf, through Iraq and you’re almost there…

  • Nigel

    Actually Gordon that’s not so daft. I read a book about “The Heroes of Telemark”, who, as you may know, flew from Wick to Norway. One, Jens Poulsson, had escaped from Norway via Sweden, down through Russia to the Black Sea, across the Med to N Africa,, down to S Africa, across to Argentina, up again to Canada and finally, flying to train in Scotland. The journey took nine months!

  • Annalies

    you also can also visit us when you make that world tour, no work to do ,only chocolate and other “nederlandse heerlijkheden”
    I like walkers cake!!!!!
    Perhaps you can find my footsteps by Dunnet, it was only a long time ago.

  • =Tamar

    Do archives fight over old Bolex projectors? It’s nice to think that someone somewhere wants it…

  • Gordon

    Ha, Nigel, I bet he had the same geography teacher I did!

    Annalies, I do have a secret passion for what is marketed over here as Dutch apple cake, so don’t think I’m not tempted. Alas, I think the world tour will have to wait until I can get an official sponsor or win the lottery. Both are good!

    Next time I’m up Dunnet way I’ll see what I can see. What sort of shoes were you wearing?

    Tamar, film archivists fight for anything that lets them view the old films. In the same way that colour film is not “fast”, so many photographs and videos from the 1960s are losing their colour – I saw entire runs of tv programmes from the south-west of England all looking like the surface of Mars, since the green and blue had gone, leaving only red. It’s a losing battle, I fear, as restoration costs so much money. Mind you, you can’t keep everything!


  • Tamar – so you’re saying I should stop taking mypictures and go back to sketching? Huh. Our road trips will be much slower, that’s for sure.

    Gordon – if you don’t include Sunny California in that world tour, I’ll get the knitting fairies to change all of your yarn into acrylic. I’m evil. We have amazing local cheese and chocolate and breathtaking views. I’ll see about finding interesting archives for you to visit.

    I also can’t wait to see the sweater!


  • Annalies

    Apple cake mmmm, i have make it many times.

  • Gordon

    Hi Song,

    You’re on as far as the chocolate goes. I’m a bit of a cheese wuss, though – basically cheddar, and a couple of Dutch cheeses. Nothing that looks and smells like a 3-week old dead baby, so that rules out French cheese. (Oh, and at the risk of disappointing my public, my idea of a perfect holiday is one that doesn’t involve any archives at all, and only a little history!)

    I captured a knitting fairy once. I keep it in a jam jar as a hostage, wired up to the mains. First sign of trouble, flick a switch and the little devil lights up like a glow worm. Haven’t a problem with ’em since. It buzzes like a wasp in there, but you learn to tune it out.

    Annalies – if I see any hiking bootprints up there i shall assume they’re yours!

    Cheers all,