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Patrington & Withernsea, Week 9: 11 December

Scotland, as the old saying goes, has only two seasons: winter and Christmas. As it’s still two weeks till Christmas, by a process of elimination it must be winter. That’s one clue; the other is the 74 mph winds, followed by freezing temperatures and snow. Still, as they used to say in the First World War to cheer themselves up: you shouldn’t have joined if you can’t take a joke.

We survived Storm Caroline, more or less. The trellis holding up the clematis was ripped from the wall, but at least the wall’s still there. (It could have been worse: one of the neighbourhood chimney pots is now perched at an alarming angle, like a top hat worn by an Edwardian rake.) The storm was so bad that even the local Tesco’s had to close owing to structural damage. They say civilisation is only three meals from collapse, and I’d already whittled a sharp point on my walking stick in case I had to bring down an antelope to survive, but luckily the store reopened. (Just as well—that was a rather tricky three hours, there.) Now Caithness is draped snugly in a duvet of snow, and shimmering in the bruised, eerie yellow-greyness of light reflected off snow.

Sunrise that morning

One winter nearly twenty years ago in Wales I was driving the road from Rhayader to Aberystwyth. It was early morning after a heavy snowfall, and the gritters hadn’t come out. As I rounded a sharp bend the car skidded and spun in the middle of the road. I was helpless, acutely aware that on one side was a wall of rock, and on the other a sheer drop of thirty metres or so, with just a flimsy wooden barrier along the verge. When I recall it now I seem to have gone through several rotations in slow motion, though it must only have been one or two. But it was long enough for me to realise that I might die, and it was a fifty-fifty chance (wall … drop …. wall … drop …). Then the roulette wheel of fate reached a decision, time caught up with me and I was slammed into the rock wall. I turned what was left of the car round and limped home, passing the gritter along the way. It cost me £995 in repairs, and I was happy to pay, given the alternative.

There’s a great poem by Philip Larkin called “Wires”, ostensibly about how young steers are always pushing boundaries until they run up against the “muscle shredding violence” of the electric fence. It ends with this lethal couplet: “Young steers become old cattle from that day / Electric limits to their widest senses“. After my close encounter with the rock wall on the road to Aberystwyth I became old cattle on snow.

Well. It’s perfect weather for lighting the fire, putting a wax cylinder on the phonograph, and knitting a gansey—which is, of course, what I’ve been doing. So much so, in fact, that I have almost finished: just the cuff to go, which I should get done by mid-week. Thoughts are already turning to the next project—probably something light after all this dark navy: in fact, I’m dreaming of a white (aran/natural) Christmas… 

Patrington & Withernsea, Week 8: 4 December

The rain has stopped, the ice has melted, the wind has dropped and the waters have receded from the face of the earth, a little. Like Noah, I’ve been keeping a dove and raven handy for dispatching in search of dry land; but the raven just sits above my chamber door and refuses to leave, while the dove was eaten by the neighbours’ cats.

Looking back towards town

The trains to Wick aren’t running just now because of a landslide at Forsinard, a place so remote you find yourself coughing just to confirm you haven’t gone deaf. The rain brought on two more landslips in Wick, one of which is down by the harbour: like something out of Dickens, no one can do anything about it because no one knows who owns the land. For a time it rained so hard it looked as though Caithness would become a giant water slide, all human settlements washed away, sluiced off the cliffs straight into the sea; but all that’s left to show for it now is the river, muddy and full, saturating the wetlands and giving some fortunate ducks a supercharged ride to the sea.

Evening clouds

In gansey news I have finished the first sleeve, and started on the second. I’ve decided I’d quite like to get this finished before we start our Christmas holidays in a couple of weeks, and I might just make it if I can keep this rate up. As I mentioned before, the yarn for the cuff came from the same dye lot as the welt; it’s only noticeable in certain lights, and it looks neater, somehow; almost as if it was intentional.

I encountered one or two instances of gratuitous rudeness last week, which left a nasty taste in the mouth. So I’ve been cheering myself up by remembering this great story of barbed courtesy I heard some years ago. A man was driving along a country road. As he neared a bend another car came towards him on his side of the road, having overtaken a third car on the bend. The man swerved and went off the road, rolled down a steep bank and came to rest upside down. The woman who’d caused the accident hastily pulled over, got out and ran down the bank to see if he was all right. As she wrenched open the door she saw him hanging upside down, suspended by his seat belt. He turned his head to look at her and enquired politely, “Yes? Is there something else I can do for you…?”

Finally this week we wish all our Finnish readers a happy December 6th, which marks the 100th anniversary of Finland’s, the country that gave the world the great Jean Sibelius, independence. Hyvää satavuotisjuhlaa, Suomi!

Patrington & Withernsea, Week 7: 27 November

The weather’s been horrible this last week. Rain becomes sleet becomes hail becomes snow, then more rain, all of it swooping down from the Arctic and slamming into Caithness with the force of an All Black pack piling into an English scrum. The land is sodden, it can’t take any more. Fields are waterlogged, turned into temporary lochs. Horses and cattle and sheep stare disconsolately at you as you pass, muddy and bedraggled and ankle deep in dirty water, as if thinking it’s just as well they can’t hold a pen or there’d be a stiffly worded letter about this in the John O’Groat Journal next Friday. And still it rains. Horizontally.

I’ve been thinking about land this week because we received a new oldest document, a feu charter dating from 1469—a grant of land, in other words. It’s written in Latin on parchment—one day horned Highland cattle will rise up and take over the world and I’m not looking forward to telling them what most of my archives are written on—and records a grant of land at Reiss and Ackergill to one James Brisbane of Wick (or “Weke” as it charmingly spells it, as if the scribe was from Yorkshire).


When this document was written, Edward IV of England had been ruling peacefully for almost eight years, unaware that in a few short months Warwick the Kingmaker would start a rebellion that would reignite the Wars of the Roses; while in Scotland James III was in the process of negotiating the transfer of Shetland and Orkney from Norway, which had ruled them since the days of Viking longships. The oldest documents are almost all about land, because parchment was expensive and you only recorded what you needed to know for the future.


Of course the irony is that 548 years later James Brisbane and his fellow landowners are not even a distant memory, just names on a scrap of parchment. The land’s still there, though, soggier and owned by other people. And you might say that an archive is a record of what people used to think was important. There’s a great quote from Native American Chief Seattle on land ownership: “We do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us?” Sometimes I think archives should contain the sparkle of the water too.


In gansey news, I have joined the shoulders (no ridge and furrow, just the pattern all the way up to the three needle bind-off), and am well embarked on my first sleeve. I outsourced the picking up stitches round the armhole to Margaret this time, as the dark nights, navy yarn and the wee hole in the centre of my right eye’s vision make that sort of fine work problematical for me just now. Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that the pattern bands on the sleeve are all four stitches narrower than on the body.

Finally, here is one of my favourite jokes on the way perceptions change over time. Apologies if you’ve heard it before, it’s from an old Punch cartoon. It’s set in Hell, and a tide of humanity is flowing along a rocky defile surrounded by flames, demons with pitchforks on every crag. At the front are two sad, fat naked little men. One turns to the other and says mournfully, “Apparently, what I’m in here for is no longer a sin.”

The ghost of James Brisbane of Weke haunts the waterlogged fields of Reiss and Ackergill, collar turned up against the wind, blowing on his frozen hands, telling anyone who’ll listen that once upon a time he used to own all this…

Patrington & Withernsea, Week 6: 20 November

What was the most unusual thing you did last week? In my case it involved a tour of an abandoned underground nuclear bunker which is, rather delightfully, up for sale.

I was down in Inverness for a meeting related to industrial archaeology, and the tour was arranged as part of that. The bunker lies unexpectedly in a housing estate, just a few blocks from Raigmore Hospital. It was built by the RAF during World War Two, and buried beneath a mound of sand and gravel to cushion the impact of any German bombs; afterwards repurposed as a command centre during the Cold War, the bunker ended its days as an emergency planning centre for civil disasters such as flooding.

It’s a weird, eerie, desolate place seen by flashlight, two storeys deep, all long corridors and low ceilings filled with dead air and a sense of abandonment. Here’s the operations centre, a large room with a massive table in the centre for pushing little markers across maps; there’s the fully fitted industrial kitchen and food store; and there’s the room with the safe, in which a man sat a man with a loaded weapon at all times—just in case, you understand; just in case. Walking through the musty, empty rooms it feels as though the disaster actually happened, and what’s left is a Pompeii without people.

The best room of all is the most unexpected: the one with the ancient generator. But it’s not the generator that makes you stop and stare. No, it’s the two pristine racing bicycles, each of them lacking a front wheel. And then you get it: if the fuel ran out, you could sit on the bikes and generate electricity by pedal power. (This of course adds a whole new meaning to, ahem, survival of the fittest…)

In gansey news, I have finished the back and and have almost finished the front. In keeping with the photos in Gladys Thompson I am continuing the pattern by way of shoulder straps (this is instead of my more usual rig ‘n fur shoulder strap). I’ll still join them with a three needle bind-off, so I will have a wee ridge running along the length of the shoulders at the join. But do I care? Never a bit: if it’s good enough for Gladys, it’s good enough for me!

Power Cycling

After the tour of the bunker we were all glad to get out, back to the cold, fresh November air. And I suddenly realised what had been in the back of my mind the whole time: with its duck-egg blue corridors of peeling paint, and its oppressive atmosphere or fear and catastrophe, it reminded me disturbingly of Northampton Grammar School for Boys, c.1971. And I suppose it would be some consolation to the last few surviving members of mankind, trapped deep underground as the radioactive winds howled across the surface of a dead planet, to know that they were excused double cross-country running on Thursdays, at least…

[By the way, the BBC did a couple of features on the bunker. You can see the main article here; and there are more photographs here.]

Patrington & Withernsea, Week 5: 13 November

On Saturday we went back to Sarclet harbour, one of our favourite places. It’s about ten miles south of us off the beaten track (turn off the A99 at Thrumster and push on for a mile or so till you run out of road, and there it lies). I’ve spoken before of its appeal as ruined harbour, destroyed in the same great storm of 1872 that smashed the Stevenson breakwater at Wick. It’s an amazing place to explore, though sometimes the ghosts crowd round so thick it’s like walking through early morning mist.

But Sarclet as a place where seals come on their holidays, hoping to pick up a bit of a tan, was entirely new to me. We were standing on the cliffs overlooking the bay and got quite excited when we saw a snout bobbing in the swell. Then we looked at the beach and realised that those tubular grey things that we’d taken for rocks, or possibly an invasion of giant slugs, were in fact an entire colony of seals–more than thirty of the little blighters. From that height they looked like they’d all been squeezed from a tube; I wondered if we’d turned up half an hour earlier we might have caught God down on the beach squeezing them out; as if He secretly replenishes the world’s stocks when nobody is looking, and these ones were still sticky and wet and new.

Alas, a family group of homo sapiens was there before us. But while mother and daughter prudently hung back, father decided to go for a closer look. Well, I could have told him what would happen: half the seals at once bolted for the safety of the ocean, scootching over the rocks with that lumbering breaststroke they use on land; the rest waited, poised for flight. At this the silly ass decided to get an even closer look, and within thirty seconds all but one of the pod was underwater. We could see them swimming in the shallows, popping up now and then to see if the coast was clear, and barking rude pinniped imprecations when they found it wasn’t. At this point we took our leave, feeling obscurely embarrassed on behalf of our species. At least now I understand why seals always look so mournful in the presence of us humans.

In gansey news I have almost completed the back. You can see the pattern more clearly now, simple but effective, and the central panels always remind me of Native American breastplate armour. I am still just about managing to keep to a rate of one 100g ball of yarn per week, though sooner or later I’ll get a life and slow down considerably.


Ladder (22 sts) and cables

The simplicity of the pattern is a big part of its appeal for me, so I determined to keep it simple. I wanted to keep the proportions, too: six panels divided by cables, with a double cable in the centre. In Thompson and Pearson the ladder panels are 18 stitches wide and the double moss stitch panels 16 stitches wide. I had my usual 368 stitches on the body, or 183 stitches for front and back (368-2 seam sts = 366; 366/2 = 183 stitches) to start with. Six cables = an additional 6 stitches.

With a little finagling I found that if I increased by 5 stitches for the cables (instead of 6) I could make the ladders 22 stitches wide and the double moss panels 20 stitches (i.e., an increase of 4 stitches per panel), as follows:

4 cables @ 10 stitches per cable = 40 sts.

And there were fireworks in the evening.

1 central cable @ 18 sts = 18 sts.

4 ladder panels @ 22 sts per panel = 88 sts.

2 moss panels @ 20 sts per panel = 40 sts.

2 flanking sts @ 1 st. each = 2 sts.

Double moss panel (20 sts) and cables

All of this adds up to 188 stitches (183 + 5). The flanking stitches are one at either side, and are there to serve as pick-up stitches around the armhole–so I can pick up the stitches for the sleeve without affecting etc pattern.