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Robin Hood’s Bay Cardigan: Week 11 – 6 July

The Herring Mart and fishermen’s huts

There’s an Old English poem, Deor, each stanza of which ends with the phrase Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg. (“Þ” is the Old English letter thorn, used for a “th” sound that doesn’t use the vocal chords, as in the word thorn. It was used alongside the letter eth, or “ð”, which has a voiced “th” sound as in the word either. Try saying thorn and either aloud and you’ll see what I mean.) The line means roughly, “That has been overcome, this also may”. It had a particular significance for JRR Tolkien, who translated it as, “Time has passed since then, this too can pass”.


The poem’s been in my mind recently as Scotland prepares to come out of lockdown. Every day brings a new sign of a return to normality. Shops are reopening, or being made ready. The boats in the marina, rocking idly in their moorings these many weeks, are now hives of activity, as bald men in overalls freshen the paintwork, batten down mainbraces and splice scuppers, or whatever it is nautical people do. The town’s seagulls have a particularly rapacious look, like gangsters planning a heist, as they wait for the tourists to come flocking back; in Wick, “gullible” takes on a whole new meaning. Already the anxious days of April seem like another lifetime. But, unlikely as it seemed back then, everything does indeed pass; time marches on, and while physicists may have proved that time is an illusion, as a wise man once observed that doesn’t make them late for meals.

Even knitting a gansey doesn’t last forever, although sometimes it feels like it might. The Robin Hood’s Bay cardigan is almost there: the knitting at least is over, it’s been washed and blocked and s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d to its proper dimensions. Now all that remains is the surgery to make it into a cardigan. When I look at it I feel it’s something of a high point in my knitting career; that maybe now I should, like Prospero, break my needles, and bury them certain fathoms in the earth, and deeper than did ever plummet sound I’ll drown my sorrows kittens books.

More Creels

Incidentally, speaking of Old English poems, there’s no getting around the fact that they are, on the whole, on the gloomy side. Even if an Anglo-Saxon scribe had tried to write a limerick it would probably have ended up something like this: “There once was young man from York/ Who died in the wastelands eaten by wolves/ Such was his wyrd/ So pass all the world’s joys/ Into eternal darkness and despair”. Who’s had it worse: us or the Anglo-Saxons? They had plague and Vikings to contend with; we’ve had the Brexit referendum, [insert the names of a US president and a British prime minister of your choice here] and New Zealand losing the cricket World Cup final; now we have a pandemic. It’s a close call. But I guess the message isn’t their bleak worldview, but rather their grudging light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel-ish-ness, which we can at least take inspiration from: Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg. Or, if you set it to music, Let the good times roll…

Robin Hood’s Bay Cardigan: Week 10 – 29 June

We all know the phrase going berserk: it means behaving in a “frenzied and violent manner”. And we all know that it derives from the Viking warriors who could whip themselves into a battle-frenzy and go, well, berserk. (You’ve probably seen the Lewis chessman berserker biting his shield; though to me he doesn’t look so much fierce as surprised, as if his shield was made of chocolate but the aluminium foil has snagged a filling.*)

I hadn’t realised the word comes from combining the Old Norse bjorn (bear) and serkr (shirt), and means literally to wear a bearskin; even, more intriguingly, to be a shape-shifter, a skin-changer, a were-bear. (This is the sense Tolkien uses in his portrayal of Beorn in The Hobbit.) The idea being that warriors became bears in their wrath—but, I can’t help wondering, what sort of bears? Luckily a fragment from the medieval Icelandic Slurri’s Saga provides a clue.


So spake Slurri, chief of the Scyldings, summoning berserkers to battle: ‘Shattered is the shield wall. Forth warriors in frenzy and become as bears! Shivered be spear, broken be the—I’m sorry, but what exactly’s going on here?’
‘You said we should change into bears.’
‘Yes, but…’
‘What’s the problem? I’m a bear.’
‘You’re a very short bear. What sort even are you?’
‘I’m Winnie the Pooh.’
‘I’ll say. Would you mind standing a bit further off?’
‘No, that’s what I’m called.’
Slurri pointed at another diminutive shape in a duffel coat and hat nearby. ‘And who on earth is that?’
‘That’s Paddington.’

The bear took off its hat. ‘Good morning,’ it said politely. ‘Would you like a marmalade sandwich?’
‘No,’ said Slurri, ‘I’d like you to slaughter the enemy!’
Paddington frowned. ‘I hardly think that would do. My aunt Lucy said it was rude to massacre people you haven’t been formally introduced to.’
Pooh said, “I could do you a poem about honey, if you like? Stanzas and everything. Though it would help,’ he added thoughtfully, ‘if anyone knew a good rhyme for Piglet.’
By this time, Slurri was starting to feel more than a little berserk himself. Then, with a flood of relief, he noticed a great brown bear behind the others.
‘Finally,’ he cried, ‘a noble bear worthy of renown!’ Then he paused, head cocked, listening. ‘What’s he saying?’
The great bear shuffled forwards. Its eyes were closed, and it seemed to be in a kind of trance.
‘Well, it’s a doobey de do,’ the new bear said.
‘I’m sorry?’ asked Slurri.
‘Yeah,’ the bear said, ‘it’s a doobey de do. I mean a doobey doobey doobey doobey doobey de do.’
‘Oh,’ Pooh said, ‘you mean old Baloo?’
Slurri regarded the big bear suspiciously. ‘Is he Welsh?’

Wildflowers on the Cliffs

Strata on the Cliffs

Alas, the fragment breaks off there, and so with relief we turn our thoughts to ganseys. And lo! Great was the ravelling therewith. The second sleeve is well over half done and should be finished sometime later this week. Then the gansey gets washed and blocked, before it goes into post-production for the ceremonial cutting of the steek and bezippening, as well as adding additional dialogue and dubbing the sound effects.

(*Damn. Now I want a chocolate shield…)

Robin Hood’s Bay Cardigan: Week 9 – 22 June

I’d like to share with you a couple of things which, in their different ways, have helped me through 13 weeks of lockdown. They say reality is what you make it: “The mind is its own place”, Milton has Satan tell his followers after being expelled from Heaven, “and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”—though one imagines the fallen angels looking round the “dismal situation, waste and wilde” of Hell that is to be their new home, and thinking, Yeah, right, whatever you say, Luce; we used to get cable—and he has a point. As does Ted Hughes in his wonderful poem Jaguar, where the spirit of the caged animal refuses to accept its limitations: “but there’s no cage to him/ More than to the visionary his cell”. But then, reality was always more of a multiple-choice question for me.

Detail of a creel

Do you know Janáček’s wonderful fairytale opera The Cunning Little Vixen? In Act 1 the young vixen has been captured by the gamekeeper and brought home, where she’s tied up in the yard and bullied by the dog and chickens. She cries herself to sleep. And then something magical happens: she dreams of finding a mate, and escaping to a new life and freedom. The music swells with a ravishingly beautiful theme, and most productions here use ballet dancers to express the sense of liberation the vixen experiences in her dream. (This clip is a splendid example.) It only lasts a few short minutes, but when she wakes up she’s energised and, er, well, she, ah, goes on to kill all the chickens and run off laughing. (As you do.) But for me the dream interlude is inspirational: a celebration of the gift of imagination to help us see a future beyond the present; of the gift of hope.

So tired

And yet, and yet: if only Vixen Sharp-Ears had learned how to knit, one feels, how much better she would have coped. I’m still making good progress with my current project, have in fact finished the first sleeve and made a fair start on the second. The cables pull the upper sleeves in just as much as the body; as ever, we’ll have to wait till the whole thing is washed and blocked before we can see it properly. For now, it’s just a relief to look into the tea leaves, see the future and find no prospect of any stitches to be picked up for the foreseeable…

Petals on the path

My other inspiration is the famous poem by the Cavalier Richard Lovelace—by Cavalier I mean of course that he was on the king’s side in the Civil War, not that he was slapdash by nature—To Althea, From Prison. It was written, as the title suggests, while Lovelace was imprisoned in 1642; and while I’ve always appreciated the message I’ve never fully embraced it, at least not till now, when I’m sort of living it, here in lockdown 2020. (There’s a rather lovely arrangement by Fairport Convention too, which is well worth five minutes’ of anybody’s time.) Here’s the last stanza—but you know the words already—sentiments as true today as when they were written:

Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such Liberty.

Robin Hood’s Bay Cardigan: Week 8 – 15 June

As a medievalist, I’ve always been interested in relics—I mean the sacred souvenirs, of course, not the 1971 Pink Floyd compilation album of the same name—things like nails used in the True Cross, or the bones of saints. (Though not bits of a bookcase Jesus made from his time as a carpenter in Galilee, obviously; I mean, how gullible do you think I am? What? No, I didn’t know that if you look up gullible in the dictionary, it’s not there; I’ll check that out as soon as I’m finished here, thanks.) These relics would be placed in shrines in churches or cathedrals, and so became places for pilgrims to visit. Over time they became huge money-spinners for the clergy, and a whole industry of fake relics sprang up. By the time of the Reformation, relics were seen as just another abuse to be swept away.

A foggy day

Take the Holy Blood of Hailes, said to be a portion of the blood shed by Christ on the Cross. It was presented to Hailes Abbey in 1270 and was supposed to have come from the coronation regalia of Charlemagne (a.k.a. Carolus Magnus, or “Big Charles”), the first Holy Roman Emperor. Hailes duly became a place of pilgrimage, and is mentioned in the Canterbury Tales (“By God’s precious heart and his nails/ And by the blood of Christ that’s now at Hailes”). The mystic Margaret Kempe visited the relic, now set in crystal and in its own shrine, at Hailes in 1417, when she also rebuked the monks for swearing, a tantalising detail that raises far more questions than it answers. The relic was said to cure the sick and even raise the dead, and who’s to say that it couldn’t?

Meanwhile, in gansey news, this is the gratifying moment when it all comes together: the front is completed, the shoulders joined, the collar done and the first sleeve is underway. (And no, I didn’t do much else this weekend; how can you tell?) One thing you lose in a photograph is the three-dimensional nature of this sort of pattern—the moss stitch really stands out when you see the physical object before you. Every stitch has a texture, and the overall effect is one rich in detail, even if there are times when it feels like I’m knitting a Dalek cosy. The sleeve pattern will extend for five or six inches, then the rest will be plain down to the cuff.

Puzzling Signs

And as for the age of relics, well, it couldn’t last. Hailes was doomed when Anne Boleyn, a committed Protestant reformer, set her chaplains on the case of the Holy Blood. They denounced it as fake (they said it was duck’s blood; amusing though that is, however, later analysis suggested it was a mix of honey and saffron). It didn’t matter. Henry VIII abolished Hailes Abbey in 1539, and that was that. The Dissolution of the Monasteries marks the real end of the Middle Ages for me, the death of a mindset. And while I wouldn’t trade the modern world, with its transplants and smartphones and contact lenses and Bob Dylan, part of me still has a sliver of regret: for a world in which a crystal of honey mixed with saffron could cure the sick, or even raise the dead…

Robin Hood’s Bay Cardigan: Week 7 – 8 June

I am, it is probably fair to say, a creature of habit. Take my daily exercise: for the last eleven weeks, since lockdown began, every day at noon, come rain or shine, I’ve gone for a walk. How far? Just 2½ miles. It’s always the exact same route, although—just to show I’m not actually, you know, obsessive or anything—I sometimes do it in reverse order.

I start by following the main road into Wick old town. This takes me past the Market Square, where in 1859 the War of the Orange began, the Sabaid Mhòr or Great Fight of Wick, when a simple argument between two small boys over a piece of soft fruit developed into a full-scale, ugly riot between hundreds of locals and incomers, mostly Gaelic-speaking fishermen from Lewis down for the fishing season, which only ended after the army was called up from Aberdeen. Walking on I pass the Camps Bar—said to derive its name from the camp grounds of Cromwell’s soldiers after the English (*cough* started in Scotland *cough*) Civil War—and cross the river by the Service Bridge; and so on into Pulteneytown.

Yellow Flag Iris by the riverside path

Designed by Thomas Telford and built by the British Fisheries Society around the time Napoleon was meeting his Waterloo, Pulteneytown was conceived in the wake of the Highland Clearances to give dispossessed families a sporting chance of not starving to death by joining the burgeoning fishing industry. My walk takes me along the harbour, where one day in the 1870s so many herring were landed that the fisher lassies, or gutters, couldn’t process them all before night fell (sometime after 11.00pm), and the rest were left to rot on the quays. I pass the scene of the Grain Riots of 1847 (Ireland wasn’t the only country with a potato famine) and stroll on through Lower Pulteneytown, narrow streets of narrow houses where the working people lived.

And here let me pause a minute, partly so I can catch my breath before I slog up the brae to Upper Pulteneytown, but also to say again how much pleasure it gives me to live and work in an old fishing town, and to walk the streets wearing a gansey inspired by those once worn by the inhabitants a hundred years ago, and to knit them. And speaking of ganseys, I’ve finished the back on my current project and am now about halfway up the front; though the front will take a little longer because of the steek.

In parish news, Margaret has sent us photos of a completed Humber Star gansey. These patterns are always very striking, and many congratulations to Margaret for completing such an impressive project, and for sharing the photos with us.

Flowering Grasses by the path

And now here we are in Upper Pulteneytown, passing the larger properties where the merchants and traders lived, and crossing Argyll Square, originally an open space for fishermen to spread their nets out to dry, glistening in the old photographs like the giant cobwebs of Mirkwood; now a tree-shaded little park. Then I rejoin the main road and descend the hill, past the former library where I used to work—once so important to the town that half the population turned out for the opening in 1898; now a gloomy sort of place where you expect to see a sinister clown lurking in the shadows with a handful of balloons. I cross the road at the former Temperance Hotel, last reminder of the 25 years (1922-47) when Wick was an alcohol-free town.

Finally I saunter back along the south bank of the river, then trip-trap over the rickety-rackety footbridge, pausing only to pass the time of the day with the troll who lives underneath, now armed with a high-powered hunting rifle in case any stray billy goats should happen along, and up the path between the fields to find myself virtually at my doorstep.

How far? Just 2½ miles, by one measure; but by another, it’s more than several hundred years…