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Monday, 27 March 2017

Soul food

This weekend, the sun has shone and I have been able to do two of my favourite things ... namely knitting and spending time in the garden.  I have even been knitting in the garden, which is just about as good as it gets.


I always worry, as the winter months roll on (and on) that my desire to grow things has left me.  I look out of the window at the bare ground in the raised vegetable beds, watching the cat dig holes (that's going to be fun when I come to dig it over) and the birds poke around in search of something edible, and the excitement that comes every year from sowing seeds and watching the plants grow just isn't there.  And then, from out of nowhere, it comes back, welling up inside me like a joyful bubble until the day comes that I just have to be outside.  It's not something that I can control, but every year I am grateful that it happens.  Today was the day that it all spilled over, pulling me out to the greenhouse like some kind of unseen magnet, and I knew that I was finally going to have to face the unholy mess that I left at the end of last year.

I have done my best to avoid looking at the mess in the greenhouse over the winter.  As someone with an RHS qualification, I Should Know Better than to leave my greenhouse in an untidy state but in my defence, a lot of the stuff came from my Dad's house and most of it from just before we sold it in October.  If you've ever moved house, you'll know that there's a moment (usually just before the removal van arrives) when you look around in satisfaction to see that you've packed everything and then realise that there's one cupboard left that seems to contain more than the contents of the entire house.  That was my Dad's shed.  Now, my greenhouse is full of netting, plant pots, seed trays and bags of various gardening-related things that he was apparently stockpiling in case of some unforeseen horticultural disaster.  Most of it will get used; some of it will replace worn out items of my own, other things will be useful additions to what I already have and some of it will get re-homed either to other gardeners or into the dustbin, but at the time, I just wanted it out of my Dad's shed and I was glad to close the door on it all.  Out of sight, out of mind - or it would have been, if the greenhouse wasn't made of glass.

I still have my Dad's seed box and it makes me happy to look through it and compare his choices to mine.  That's his on the left, full of vegetable seeds whilst mine has flower seeds in there too.  Dad didn't grow flowers; to him, gardening was about producing edible crops and he was particularly good at it.  I've been chatting to him over the weekend, a running commentary as I searched for beans, onions, sprouts, lettuce, are all different to the varieties that I've grown up until now.  It was a very one-sided conversation, I have to say, but I didn't mind.


I've chosen not to do my usual trick of planting absolutely everything all at once so that I become overwhelmed by seedlings.  I'll be able to sow some seeds straight into my veg boxes once they're ready (that'll be the next job) and I'll be able to sow others as the season progresses and the weather warms up.  This is my rather restrained sowing for today - tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes and climbing beans.  


I've got sprouts and lettuce in the greenhouse but these need the heat of the house for now.  I've also got peas and sweet peas chitting - that is, soaking in damp kitchen roll to start the seeds off before I plant them in the ground - and I started my seed potatoes off the other week.  The potatoes will sit here in the egg box until they start to sprout and then I'll be able to put them in the ground.  I wasn't planning to grow potatoes again this year but I spotted these seed potatoes in Aldi and this variety is Charlotte, a favourite salad potato, and before I knew it they were in my trolley.  I know that happens with yarn but I didn't know it happened with potatoes too! 


I'm so glad that I've made a start.  Gardening is definitely good for my soul; there's something about the fresh air and my hands in the compost that makes my heart sing.  You'll be glad to know that I washed my hands before touching this pale pink yarn though!  It's the new Candy Floss colour from West Yorkshire Spinners which matches their other new yarn, a pink striped yarn called Flamingo. 


I've had my eye on these yarns ever since they were introduced to the WYS range a few weeks ago, and it's really lovely to be knitting with their Signature 4ply again.  I have to remember that it's not just sock yarn (I got reminded of that a couple of times when I went to visit last year!) but it does make particularly good socks!  It slides around the needles beautifully, is super-easy to match with those bold stripes and is perfect for beginners.  The pattern that I'm using is a rather exciting one, but I'm going to save telling you about that for another day J


I've also been working on a pair of socks using the Doulton Flock Border Leicester yarn that I bought a short while ago.  I really like this yarn too, and it's a proper purple, my favourite colour. It's another no-nylon sock yarn that I'm testing out, and I'll be setting up a proper review page for them soon so that the information is easy to find for anyone else interested in exploring different yarns.  This pair of socks is going to be my next tutorial which I'm planning for May - it's another technique for improving skills after conquering the basic sock and this time we're going to be looking at lace.  Nothing complicated at all, I promise - you'll be knitting lace in no time!


I've also knitted up the sample of the Samite yarn that I picked up at the Edinburgh Yarn Festival. Blacker Yarns have officially launched the yarn now and I can imagine that it's going to fly off their shelves.  Sue Blacker and her team created this yarn as a woollen spun silk blend to see how it compared to the more usual worsted spun yarns, especially as worsted spun silk blends have a tendency to pill more quickly.  The difference between woollen and worsted spinning is about how the fibres are laid out before they are spun.  The fibres in a worsted yarn are combed to make them all lie in the same direction, resulting in a smooth yarn, whereas the fibres in a woollen yarn are not so you can often find fibres poking out of the yarn.  Woollen spun yarns are much more bouncy and this suits the Shetland that makes up the Samite yarn along with Gotland and Ahimsa silk, which is an ethical way of farming silk that doesn't harm the moth creating it as the moths are allowed to grow to maturity which takes longer than other silk production techniques.  


As it knits as 3ply, it's not sock yarn, but it is very lovely, and very light too.  It's got a slight texture to it created by the silk and it was very nice to knit with.  I would happily knit myself a cardigan or a shawl with this and it think it's one of those yarns that would still look good after many years of use.  Sonja from Blacker Yarns has created a couple of free patterns specially for the Samite yarn here and here - Sonja also created the Hartland Cliffs shawl pattern that I finished recently so if you're tempted to try one of the new patterns, I can tell you that it will be well-written and easy to follow.  The colours of the Samite are gorgeous too - my sample above is knitted in the one that is top left in the photo below and you can see how it changes in different lights.  It's called Tide of Dreams; other colours are Fiery Dew, Aspen's Shiver, Wild Bee's Hum and Peacock's Neck, all inspired by the pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements which sought to define the way that art was created and perceived in mid-Victorian Britain.  

Photo source: www.brityarn.co.uk
I'm sure this is going to be a hugely successful permanent addition to the Blacker Yarns flock of yarns and I'm certainly going to keep it in mind for future projects that might be enhanced by some ethical silken luxury.  I'm so pleased that Blacker Yarns were able to let me try out their yarn - thank you!

Well, another week awaits us and I hope that it's a good one for you!   


Sunday, 26 March 2017

Mother's Day


It's Mother's Day, or Mothering Sunday, here in the UK.  A day, as far as I am concerned, that we should celebrate our nurturing natures, whoever and whatever we care for.  Happy Mothering Sunday to you, wherever you are xx



Saturday, 18 March 2017

In the garden

Whilst other parts of the world were knee-deep in unexpected snow thanks to Storm Stella, it was a beautiful day in Winwick last Wednesday so I made the most of it and spent it in the garden. Our poor garden - it's still recovering from the winter and despite the abundance of snowdrops and daffodils, has that scruffy, dishevelled look that gardens have until the new leaves properly start to appear on the plants.

Armed with a brew in my trusty "Famous Slugs of History" anti-bug mug, I headed out to continue the clearing up operation that I've been doing since the autumn.  


Strong winds and relentless rain over the winter has made such a mess; it's great being surrounded by trees until you realise that also means a garden full of leaves and twigs which need sweeping up.  Where do they all come from?  I've been sweeping up leaves and twigs since September!  I really need to do something about our grass this year too; the ground isn't as free-draining as I'd like it to be and being shadowed by the trees isn't the best condition for grass to thrive.  We've got a lot of moss growing in amongst the grass now and I need to put lawn sand down to kill it off and then rake it all up.  I think I'm going to try sowing white clover instead of more grass seed - apparently it's more hardy than grass, always looks green and the bees like the flowers.  Oh, and it doesn't go brown when the dog piddles on it either like grass does which has got to be a huge bonus.  Has anybody tried it?  Did it work for you?


I'm delighted to see the poppies are growing again.  They have such lovely serrated leaves and the contrast in the green of the poppies in the foreground and the Crocosmia behind is just lovely.


It's not proper gardening for me these days unless I've got a bonfire going.  It was such a beautiful day, sunny and without any wind for a change, that the fire was easy to start and I soon got rid of a huge pile of twigs and small branches that I'd collected up which weren't suitable for the green waste bin.  The downside of a bonfire is that I go back into the house smelling like a kipper, but it's always worth it!


Time for another brew!


Finally, a job I'd been putting off for too long.  Our trampoline was looking more than a little bit of a mess, covered in leaves, twigs (no surprises there) and that green whatever-it-is - mould, lichen? - that comes from being underneath trees.  The safety padding over the springs had disintegrated and the safety net had long since been shredded by the dog.  If you ever saw the John Lewis Christmas advert with the trampolining dog ... then our dog was nothing like that.  No perfect bouncing in the middle of the trampoline, no joyful leaping higher and higher with a doggy smile on his face and definitely no synchronised boinging with small daughter or any other furry animals.  Oh no.  Our dog liked to fling himself against the safety netting, catapulting himself from one side to the other like some sort of canine cannonball until the net gave up the ghost and we were seriously worried that he would ping himself over into next door's garden (luckily, he never did).  I don't even remember how he started getting himself up there; watching the girls no doubt and not wanting to be left out.  Perhaps we should have replaced the net, but without it, the dog wasn't interested in the trampoline and small daughter learnt to take more care so that she didn't fall off the edge.  It's nice that she still wants to use it, with high school looming on the horizon, but she does so with the nicer weather on it's way it was time to clean it up.


A good brush, a scrub with some all-purpose cleaner, new safety padding and we're good to go again.  


Oh look.  Time for another break.  Late lunch this time - is there anything nicer than smoked salmon and cream cheese on toast with a bit of knitting in the sunshine?  


Only knowing that your dog is sitting next to you, drooling at the thought of crumbs, and with all paws safely on the ground.


Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Edinburgh Yarn Festival

I was sitting at Edinburgh Waverley station on Sunday afternoon, knitting my sock and waiting for my platform to be announced, when the lady next to me leaned over and said, "Have you been to the yarn festival?"  It turned out that she had too.  We're a sociable lot, us yarny people, aren't we? The lady happened to be getting my train too, and if our seats had been together then no doubt we would have spent the journey comparing notes and yarns (instead, I sat next to a man who knew a lot about planes and wind turbines) and no doubt the lady would have seen parts of the festival that I had missed, because that's always how it is.  So you're going to read about the parts of the festival that caught my eye, and the parts of Edinburgh that caught my eye too - get ready for lots of photos!  

(You might want to get yourself a brew as this post has turned out to be very long - and an apology in advance - although it seemed bright enough when we were out and about, the photos do seem to be very grey!)

I have to say, I wasn't particularly sociable at all on Friday morning when I got on the train at Warrington to go to Edinburgh.  I was so looking forward to some uninterrupted sock time that I put my headphones on, listened to podcasts - the KnitBritish update on the Edinburgh Yarn Festival, Radio 2's Simon Mayo Confessions (which made me laugh out loud, always a strange experience if you're not the person with the headphones on), and Radio 4's In Our Time debate about the Roman emperor Justinian's legal code because I like to mix it up a bit! - and knitted until the train arrived at Edinburgh.  I got on very well with the Stylecraft cinema (and now train) sock.  I managed not to drop any stitches or do anything otherwise daft and was ready for the Kitchener stitch by the time the train pulled into the station.  Thank goodness!


I met my lovely friend Lucy at the station.  We congratulated ourselves on having a weekend away from family duties to please ourselves and after finding our hotel, celebrated with cider and gin. Oh, and chips, which we ate outside as we watched the world go by.  They were good!


We'd planned to spend the Saturday at the yarn festival as it was the afternoon by the time we had got to the hotel, so after our pit stop we thought we'd get a bit of sightseeing in.  If you've never been to Edinburgh before, it's a brilliant city to walk around as everywhere is closer than you might think.  We decided not to get the sightseeing bus but instead see where our feet took us and with the help of the friendly man at the hotel reception who knew all about the best places to walk to and a map, we set off to see what we could see.  One thing that we hadn't realised, though, was quite how hilly it was.  We walked up steps ...


and down steps ...


and up more steps.  We certainly got a workout over the weekend!


It was worth it, though, because the views from the top of the hills were amazing.  I love to look down on rooftops and out across cities.  This view was from just outside the castle, which dominates the landscape in every direction.  



These days, the imposing esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle is the venue for the famous Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (a "tattoo" is a military performance of music or display of armed forces) which is an annual festival featuring musicians and performers from around the world, amongst other events, such as concerts and even weddings, but the history of the castle dates back to the 12th Century.  It's not in use as a royal residence any more but houses the Crown Jewels of Scotland, the Scottish Stone of Destiny or Stone of Scone, used when monarchs of both England and Scotland are crowned and the War Museum of Scotland.


I don't think there are many places in the city where you can't see the castle, which seems to have grown right out of the rock.  It towers above the Old Town and the New Town (which was built in the 1700s so isn't actually that new at all), linking the two parts of the city.


The street that you can see running along the bottom of this photo is Princes Street on the New Town side - this is the place to go for the shops and the grand hotels.  You maybe can't see from this photo but the characteristic of the New Town is that it's built on a grid system, in contrast with the Old Town which is much more organic in the way it was developed.


There are so many fascinating tourist attractions in Edinburgh - including the castle - but we chose to keep walking.  It's a good excuse to go back to visit them again!  One that we didn't see but which is top of my list for a future visit is The Real Mary King's Close, a warren of 17th Century houses underneath the modern city; because Edinburgh was built on such steep hills, houses were built to take advantage of all of the slopes so some face one way and others are built on top of them facing in the opposite direction.  A "close" is a narrow street through the buildings (similar narrow thoroughfares are often called alleys, ginnels or snickets depending on where you live in the country) leading off the Royal Mile which is the main road up to the castle.  Mary King's Close was one such street, but in the time of the plague it was partially demolished and abandoned - allegedly with plague victims trapped inside - and forgotten about until it was rediscovered and became a tourist attraction in the 1990s.  I'm not so bothered about the ghost story that goes with it (there's no shortage of ghost tours in Edinburgh!), but I think it would be really interesting to see what was left of those tenement buildings, some of which were apparently seven stories high, packed with families living in dreadful conditions.  It's a different life, one that I can't begin to imagine, and it's no wonder that the plague tore through the community.

On a more cheerful note, this sign made me laugh.  I thought it said "Elf Office" until I looked at it again J.


I loved looking down through the closes to the buildings beyond.  We found ourselves really drawn to them, turning off the main street at every opportunity to walk down the "secret" passageways!


My favourite thing about Scottish architecture is the turrets that are built into the tops of the buildings.  I'd love to live in a house with a turret!  Edinburgh is one of those cities where you miss so much if you don't look up.




We continued our theme of getting up high by climbing Calton Hill at the far end of Princes Street, getting a view of the other side of the city. 



Simply turn your head to the left, though, and you leave the city behind.  The hill to the left is known as Arthur's Seat and the long slope in front is Salisbury Craggs (the white dome, in case you're curious, is Dynamic Earth, a natural history museum).  It's obviously a very popular walk up to Arthur's Seat - Lucy and I sat for a long time on the bench from where I took the picture and we could see figures in the distance walking  (some were even running!) up and down the long slope. It's a good place to sit and put the world to rights, and it wasn't until it started raining that we thought it might be wise to head back to the hotel!


We passed this little chap with his shiny nose on the way back.  He's Greyfriar's Bobby, and the story goes that he sat on his master's grave for 14 years until he died himself and was buried close to his master.  You can read more about the little dog here.  He's got a shiny golden nose because people like to rub it for luck.  Oh, and in case you're wondering what type of dog he is, he's a Skye Terrier (and usually their noses are black J).


After dinner and an early night, we were up and about in good time to set off for the Edinburgh Yarn Festival on the Saturday morning.  Did you think I'd forgotten about it in my excitement of telling you about the city? J

It was a bus ride away from where we were staying in Grassmarket, and we weren't the only yarny people on the bus as it headed out of the city centre to the Corn Exchange.  We'd heard that it had been incredibly busy on the Friday and Lucy and I hadn't bought advance tickets so we expected to have to wait in a long queue to get in, but by the time we arrived we pretty much walked straight in.


We headed for Blacker Yarns and the Podcast Lounge first of all so that I could show off my Blacker Yarns Pod KAL makes and also say hello to Louise of the KnitBritish podcast as I'm going to be sponsoring one of the episodes later this year.  Lucy managed to grab a seat to talk to some friends and I shouldered my way through to talk to Sonja at Blacker Yarns and Louise.  Phew - we thought it was really busy in the cafe/knit n natter area so if the day before had been busier ... it would have been standing room only!


I made my first purchase of the day - some mini-skeins of St Kilda Laceweight (I got a discount as I'd taken part in the KAL, it would have been rude not to use it) - and waved my Arwen socks at anyone who wanted to look at them.  No, they weren't on my feet, I had considered this beforehand and kept my socks safely in my bag!

One of the big draws to the Edinburgh Yarn Festival is their classes, which run for four days - two either side of the main festival weekend - and are very popular.  They sold out really quickly and it's easy to see why when you look at the people running them: Kate Atherley, Clare Devine, Karie Westermann, Felicity Ford (Knitsonik), Bristol Ivy, Justyna Lorkowska (Lete's Knits), Nathan Taylor (Sockmatician), Hazel Tindall, Tom of Holland ... the list goes on and on!  I think it's an interesting idea to run the classes outside of the main festival too, and they were in three different venues so the marketplace was opened up early to give the people attending the classes chance to get in to look around before they went off to their classes and potentially missed buying anything.  

It was pretty busy when we headed out into the market place, although the exhibitors we spoke to said it was nothing compared to the day before ...


and I think that if you had a specific plan of buying certain yarns and hadn't been there on the first day then you might well have been disappointed as many of the stands had bare shelves.  This sign made me laugh (I think it might have been at An Caitin Beag) ...


and I thought that these long plaits of fleece stand for spinning at the Porpoise Fur looked like mermaids' hair.


We saw lots of beautiful Fair Isle - Kate Davies was there, and Marie Wallin (this picture is from her stand) - amongst others ...


and there were lots of yarns from the Scottish islands which were just gorgeous and it was impossible to pass them by without squishing.

Other designers including Jared Flood were there - it was a very designer-orientated festival - although there were more than a few stands that I recognised from Yarndale and Woolfest.  There wasn't much crochet at all, which meant that it felt like much more of a knitter's festival.  Luckily, there was plenty that Lucy was interested in seeing so she wasn't bored.

Knitted bird, anyone?


We headed back into the lounge/cafe area and demolished a piece of cake (good job I took the photo when I did, I don't think that cake lasted more than 5 minutes!) ...


before settling down with a cup of tea and our knitting and crochet for a bit.  I'd moved onto the black sock and did really well with it at the weekend - I'm up to the toes now - and Lucy was working on her new Hydrangea blanket which she's planning to talk more about on her blog pretty soon.


After another quick look around to make sure that we hadn't missed anything (I had, as it turned out - some sock yarn!), we left the Corn Exchange and hopped back on the bus to the city centre. Look, another turret - and the castle!


Our room was right up high on the third floor of the hotel overlooking Grassmarket, once a place where markets were held and hangings were a daily occurrence.  We had such a good view across the rooftops, and luckily there was nothing more disturbing than rugby songs from the pub below us as the Six Nations Rugby Championships were on.


Sunrise on Sunday morning ...


We had a leisurely breakfast with my relatives who were able to come over and meet us, and then headed out for a last walk around the city before heading for our trains home.  This is the Elephant House cafe, the place where J K Rowling wrote much of her early Harry Potter novels.  Edinburgh hasn't gone commercially overboard on the Harry Potter connection; it's there if you look for it in the merchandise in some of the shops, some street signs and Harry Potter-inspired walking tours, but there's plenty on the internet if you want to read up and visit some of the sites that allegedly provided inspiration for the books.  Of course, we were out of season so it could be that in the summer, Edinburgh is Potter-mad!   


I loved the tower of St Giles' Cathedral which looks like a crown.  This is on the Royal Mile and you can see right down to the sea - behind us is the castle so it must have been a very imposing sight in the days when there were less buildings.


We took a last walk over to the New Town.  I love that the view of the castle is everywhere, as if it's protecting the city no matter which side of it you're on.


The buildings in the New Town are not as tall as those in the Old Town, and it's surprisingly quick to walk from one end of Princes Street to the other down these straight streets.


Quite unlike this one - this is Victoria Street leading down to Grassmarket, and apparently the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books.  I like the fact that the shops are all different colours, and that no space has been wasted as there are shops and restaurants up above the main street level shops too.  


I don't really have much to show you in the way of a "haul".  I bought the Wool Tribe book before I went, and it was good to have been able to read it before the festival, not least because I recognised the knitted projects on the various stands.  


All I brought home was my set of rainbow mini-skeins from Blacker Yarns, hand-dyed by The Knitting Goddess, and destined to become a shawl at some point using the spare skein of St Kilda Laceweight that I had from my Hartland Cliffs shawl ...


and some beautiful green sock yarn.  This is from the Shilasdair stand where their yarns are dyed on the isle of Skye with natural dyes.  My green yarn is dyed with Skye meadowsweet and indigo and the way that the yarn has taken the dye in the various shades is just gorgeous.  


There was so much more that I could have bought, but I am trying really hard to keep my stash to what I can reasonably use in one lifetime ... I did bring this sample of the new Blacker Yarns Samite silk blend yarn so that I can tell you more about it.  No, I really don't think it's ever going to be socks no matter how much I might wish it to be, but it is very lovely and I am very pleased to have been offered the sample to look at.  The colours are all inspired by the pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements and have wonderful names like "Bursting Figs" and "Aspen's Shiver". My sample is "Tide of Dreams", and I'll let you know what I think!


Phew - what a long post - but what a great weekend it was!  Lucy and I had such a fun time exploring the city and visiting the festival - bring on our next weekend away!

It's always nice to be home, though J