Alison Crowther-Smith

Spring Sportive: competitive queuing and me being grumpy

April 13th, 2017

Last weekend, I rode in the New Forest Sportive.  This is road bike event. I have done this event several times and I really like it.  This time was the first time in about three years though, partly because I got a bit bored of it, partly because I got very bored with training for them, and also because the venues they use have got worse over the years.  This year, encouraged by a friend who had just taken up road cycling, I entered the moderate length race – 66 miles.  That’s too far for me, really.

My training was not ideal. I don’t like riding in cold, windy and wet weather and default to a run or the gym.  It’s been a while since I rode over 60 miles and although this course is fairly mild, it does have some testing bits, one quite hard climb – and it’s a long way, so you have to keep pedalling for several hours.  Or at least I do.  Because I had no training run that was over 50 miles and I needed to drag out a 66 miler preferably without getting all knackered and messy, I worked on the basis of it taking us about 5 hours.  You have to stop, eat, drink, have a wee, get your sorry arse off the knife-like saddle, un-knot your knotted shoulders, triceps and biceps etc.  I also do much better in the mornings so I calculated a 9.00 am departure thus getting back to the venue at about 2.00, maybe 2.30 pm.

And it was a new venue so I thought it might be better and more cheerful than the last place which looked like a set for filming a 1970s gritty UK police drama – think abandoned banger-racing murder scene. Or the one before that, which was very pretty but terribly prone to flooding/trapping cars on the mud-plains if it rained.  And it rained.

This new venue is really attractive, with a pile of stately home, park-lands and sweeping drives.  Not that you get anywhere near the stately home.  But, the little tracks and limited pathways cause the venue to clog up completely when you add in (estimated)  2 or 2.5k cyclists and their cars.  So, we left home at 6.15 am, arrived at the venue at 8.05 am, as instructed (Do Not Arrive Before 8!).  Then we queued to park for about 20 minutes, then we trailed all over the field to the porta-loos (vile, no paper at all, all day), then seeing how far the registration area was, we decided to ready the bikes and take them with us to register which we don’t usually.  This all took another 30 minutes or so, which is pretty standard for a big event.  I would have been happy to start the ride before 9, which is what I had planned.

However, there was now a massive queue for the starting line.  Groups of cyclists are released across the start in order to have an orderly and safe exit from the venue.  It is usual to have a little wait.  But this was well over an hour of slowly shuffling up the paths, making agonisingly slow progress towards the gate.  Luckily it was sunny and warm.  So you know, pretty good natured.

Behind us in the queue was a couple who struck up a conversation with a lone-cyclist just beside them.  Maybe it was being forced to listen to this for AN HOUR that made me a bit ragey.  What I don’t know about Rex and Sonia’s cycling, kids, holidays, breakfast choices, pet-names for each other/the kids, really isn’t worth knowing.

In summary, Rex and Sonia live in another bit of Hampshire with Maximilian (or Max-Bunny as his mummy calls him) and Frederick (yep.  Freddie-Bunny).  These probably adorable boys are old enough to be left at home and fend for themselves, so I am just guessing that they are early to mid-teens with Max-Bunny being the youngest, as he was up and about, ready to answer his mother’s ‘phone call, which went roughly like this:

Sonia (to Rex and Random Lone Cyclist/the entire queue):  I’m going to give Max a call.  This is ridiculous, we’ve been in this queue for ages and we will be here for an hour longer so we will be very late.  I need to let them know.

Rex:  it’s too early.

Sonia:  mmm, maybe you’re right.

A pause of possibly 2 minutes.

Sonia (on her mobile ‘phone):  Oh! hello Max-Bunny!  It’s mummy!  … yes I thought you might be up … yes I thought Freddie-Bunny would still be asleep! (adorable laughter, like gently babbling brooks) … anyway, look darling, it’s taking for EVAH to get off on this race so we will be at least an hour later back than I said … I don’t know exactly… What? No! goodness me, it certainly had better NOT take us 4 or 5 hours to get round!  I jolly well hope we can do better than that…(darling rippling laughter, like gently blowing breezes).

(Mark and I exchange bitter glances.  I know he is willing me, with all his might, not to turn round and kick off.  I heed his silent plea and stare fixedly at the almost see-through lycra clad, straining arse of the cyclist in front of me)…

(Sonia resumes)…have you had brekkers? … Oh! Darling! I am sorry I am not there to make your muffins! … yes … blah, blah, some more stuff about muffins and alternative breakfast options, the dog and Granny…(rings off).

Sonia (pointlessly, as we all got the gist):  relays all the above to Rex and Random Lone Cyclist.

In the meantime I text Lily and say:  such a long sodding queue, will be ages, probs an hour or so later than planned, FML x

Random Lone Cyclist:  so…have you done a Sportive before?

Sonia:  No!  and it looks like we won’t be doing another one if this is anything to go by! (girlish tinkling giggle, like trilling larks).

Random Lone Cyclist (despite me willing him to shut up and stop feeding her):  what distance are you doing?

Sonia:  the 66 miles.  Didn’t want to go for the longer one just yet.  Actually, this is really a warm up event for us – part of our training.

RLC (like he had read the script, bless him, personally I’d have walked off, forfeited my place in the now half-mile long queue and joined the back of it):  Oh?

(Mark actually smacked his own forehead with his fist at this point).

Sonia:  yes!  We are cycling in the Italian Dolomites next month, and (heavy sarcasm)  I hear it’s a *BIT* *HILLY*! (low, adorable and self-depreciating laugh like someone gently riffling a pack of cards).

Silence.

Sonia:  yes!  And I only dragged my old road bike out last month!  it’s been ages since we did any serious cycling, isn’t it (Rex)?

Rex:

(At this point I have to summon all my inconsiderable will power not to turn round and look at her ‘old road bike’ which I am sure is a £4k full carbon limited edition brand spanking new bike, probably red…but I will never know as for once, will power prevailed).

Sonia:  But it’s all going very well so we thought we’d try this one as it looks rather easy and not too long…though this delay is a nuisance, we will just have to cycle much faster, won’t we (Rex)?

Rex:

Sonia:  oh my goodness! We won’t get back here until about 1.00 if we don’t get away by 10.30, will we?  I certainly hope it won’t take us five hours! Something will have gone very wrong, if we take five hours, won’t it (Rex)?

Rex:

RLC:  I reckon it’ll take me about four and a half.

(I warm to RLC though still wish he’d stop talking to Sonia).

Sonia:  yes, well, we’re just going to pedal that much faster, to make up for this terrible delay, aren’t we, (Rex)?

Rex:

With the sun now beating down and it being very hot, me having donned three layers of wool-based jerseys, I have to ask Mark to balance my bike so I can take the top layer off which is quite big and has a wide hood.  I then can’t get this jacket in my little ruck-sack which is of course full of Tupperware containers housing nuts, cheese and mini cocktail sausages.  Because I don’t want to expose this food to Sonia’s gaze, I decide not to un-pack/re-pack the bag and instead, tie the top layer round my middle.

Finally, we get to the bit where we are being readied to cycle and I try to clip onto my bike, but I struggle as my shoe cleats, which need to clip into the receiving cleat on the pedals, are full of crap and mud and gravel from the sodding parkland and mud paths.  So there is an ungainly struggle between me and my bike as I wrestle my feet into place, and then realise that I can’t unclip them easily as they are kind of stuck, on account of the mud and grit. Finally, I get clipped on and we mount and cycle – only I can’t get my bum on the knife-like saddle because the effing hood of my blasted jersey is round my saddle. I have two further attempts to haul myself onto the bike and get seated before veering off to the grass verge in order to tear off my waist-adorning jersey and generally have a much-needed low-key swearing session.

And Sonia pelts past me, head down, bent on the Yellow Jersey of The New Forest, while her frankly adorable warbling laughter bathes my burning ears…

It took us over five hours. I imagine Sonia was at home stirring the risotto long before I hauled my sorry behind over the finish line. It was lovely, mainly.

I’ve decided not to do any more sodding Sportives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Recipes

April 4th, 2017

Here are a some new recipes for things I have been serving at workshops.

Short Bread Biscuits

New in my repertoire.  I like short bread but I hate making it with my actual hands.  Sure, my hands are going to get involved at some stage but with this recipe, that is only at the end. These look, if I say so myself, pretty good, almost like the ones in M&S or that Waitrose.  I imagine.  This is because I have some lovely flower shaped biscuit cutters from Lakeland (All Hail) that make them perfect. This makes about 50 biscuits.  That is too many for one go, even for 10 at a workshop, but listen, this is not a recipe that even I, with incredibly high levels of tolerance for cooking, want to make often, and you can roll out, cut and freeze the biscuits you do not need and defrost and bake them later!  Genius.

  • 500g of salted butter (Yes.  Five. Hundred)
  • 750g of a mix of white, plain flour and cornflour. I use about 200g of cornflour
  • 250g of white sugar – normal or castor

Cut up the butter into small bits and place in a big mixing bowl.  Add the sugar.  Let this get all warm by the oven or somewhere but not too melty. Don’t miss out this stage and use cold butter. You’ll thank me later.

Arm yourself with a hand-held cake mixing device (you may have a kitchen aid, and if so, good for you, get it in there, instead, but I don’t.  I only have my hands, some wooden spoons and my hand-held mixing device).  Get the mixer into the butter/sugar mixture and say goodbye to about 10 – 15 minutes of your life in which you can’t hear the radio or anything over the row made by the mixer.  Keep on mixing.  Ignore it when it clumps up and starts to get all mashed into the round bits of the mixer – ignore it until the butter/sugar paste begins to travel up the beaters towards you.  Then stop and get it all back in the effing bowl, and off you go again.

Just carry on until the clumping sort of gets less bad and it’s all pale.  Have a drink of water and limber up for Round 2 – the flour round.  Add the flour  – which you must sieve – into the bowl of clumpy stuff, in doses.  I had about 6 goes.  Each time you add a few spoons of flour, prepare for a cloud of flour to rise from the bowl and settle almost everywhere when you first re-introduce the beater.  This process is quite tiresome and the dough will vacillate between buttery crumbs that may fly at you/all over the kitchen in general, and even more clumpy dough than before.  Also, the quantity of flour will seem ridiculously huge and you will say (maybe just in your head, or if you are like me, out loud):  there is no way this bastar&ing flour is all going to amalgamate with that butter/sugar axis of doom.  But, it will.  You just have to keep on and have faith.

I did this until all the flour was in and stopped once I thought that my hand and arm might be about 2 minutes short of permanent vibration damage. I then floured the dough a bit more, and my hands, and the surface and did some fairly firm kneading.  Tip it all onto the surface and just have a good old mix with your hands. You need a lot more flour.  Now at this stage, I realised I wasn’t going to cope with it all so I cut it in half and tackled it half at a time. It goes smooth when you roll it, but also a bit cracked at the edges – as I was too, by now – but if you roll it out and ignore the very edges, you can cut perfect shapes.  I cut mine about 7mm deep.  That sounds nerdy.  Fair enough, I am a nerd, but the thing is, you need this incredibly dense dough to cook without really colouring, for once it goes brown-ish, it is in fact slightly burnt, and you can taste that, so don’t cut them too thick.

What I love is that as there is literally no raising agent at all, they do not melt into a nasty cookie-lake as my attempts at biscuits so often do.  They just stay exactly like the shape you started with.

I then freeze the cut out raw biscuits in a Tupperware between layers of baking paper.  These can be defrosted for an hour or so and then baked, at a moderate heat (I used the Aga baking oven, so I guess that is about gas mark 4) for no longer than 17 minutes.  My Aga is hot in places so I often had to get them out and turn the tray.  Once they are done – slightly coloured, so subtle – and a bit cooked-looking, get ’em out and sprinkle the hot biscuits with a little bit of castor sugar.  They may feel a bit soft.  It’s OK, they will crisp up as soon as they cool down.  Once they are cool enough to handle, cool them on a rack.

They are absolutely yummy. My advice is to make 100s and freeze them so you only have to go through this every now and then, but it is so worth while.  Lily said they looked shop bought but she didn’t see the flour-drenched kitchen on the day I made them.  I think small ones, served with chocolate mousse or lemon posset would be lovely.

Roasted Ratatouille

No Picture, sorry.  This serves 10, so scale down. I *think* it will freeze well, but have not tried that.  I make it 24 hours ahead.  I think it is better that way.  The pre-roasting is the key part.

  • 6 large red peppers
  • 4 large yellow peppers
  • 4 red onions
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 3 cans of chopped tomatoes
  • 2 jars/cartons of really good quality passata
  • (optional, I leave this out for workshops) 1 – 2 de-seeded finely chopped red chillies
  • 4 large courgettes
  • 1 butternut squash
  • Rape seed oil and butter
  • salt and pepper

First, cut the peppers in half, remove the core/seeds and place in a big roasting tin.  Roast in a hot oven, or under the grill.  If you are grilling, first get them tender and then turn the grill up to char the skins.  If roasting, just blast them for about 30 – 40 mins, turning as they will fill with liquid.  Once they are done, and while they are piping hot, put them all in a large food bag and seal it up. Leave it to go cold.

Wash but do not peel the butternut squash.  De-seed it and cut the flesh including the skin into small cubes c 1 cm-ish.  Pop these in a non-stick frying pan with some oil and  butter.  Roast them/saute them until they begin to caramel and are cooked through.

Do the same with the courgettes but slightly bigger chunks and do not let them go soft.  More heat, less time.

Do the same with the red onion, which I slice long-ways like at the fair when they serve onions with hot-dogs.

Take the peppers out of the bag and try and peel the skin off each bit of pepper.  This is something I have mixed success with so I don’t stress too much if I miss bits.  Chuck the skins away.  Cut the remaining pepper into strips or chunks.

Peel and crush the garlic so it’s finely minced.  Heat some oil in a big, deep pan and add the garlic and the chilli if using that.  Then add all the pre-roasted/saute-ed veggies, and give it a bit of a stir so the oil gets on it.  Add the tomatoes and the passata.  Get it to a simmer – watch it ‘cos it spits hot lava like a ratatouille volcano.  Do not let this boil or simmer for long, the veg is all cooked really and it will start to disintegrate if you over-cook it now.

I serve this with masses of grated cheddar to stir in.  I also serve it with the next recipe…

Chilli Peas

This is invented by me, based shamelessly on the Macho Peas served in my beloved Nando’s.  Nando’s is the best place to eat.  Evah.  I wanted to re-create my favourite side dish and I am delighted with my version.

This serves 10, so as ever, scale. Downwards, probably. I am sure it will freeze OK but I never have.  For workshops, I make it 24 hours ahead and gently re-heat it for an hour before serving.

  • One-and-a-half packs (the big ones, not sure how much they weigh) of frozen petit-pois
  • 4 – 6 cloves of garlic, still with the paper skin on (this will be pre-boiled so will be much milder than usual)
  • A fair bit of rape seed oil AND very good quality olive oil
  • A big handful of fresh, finely chopped mint
  • 1/2 – 1 teaspoon of hot chilli flakes (I usually use one rounded for this amount.  Be careful if you are not sure.  I use hot flakes which are very fiery so less is wise if you don’t like too much heat)
  • Salt and pepper

Put the garlic cloves in the water you intend to cook the peas in.  So when I make this, that is quite a lot of water.  Get it to the boil and then simmer with the garlic cloves in there for about 5 minutes. Now your kitchen and indeed the entire house/street smell of garlic.  You’re welcome.  Add the frozen peas.  Get it back to the boil.  Boil the peas for 3 – 4 minutes.  I add 1/2 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda as it begins to boil as this keeps the peas greener.  Up to you.  Once tender, drain and rinse with warm water.  Let them continue to drain. Fish about for the garlic and slip off the papery skin. Roughly chop the garlic which will be tender and much less garlic-y now you have boiled it. Put the garlic and half the peas back in the big pan.

Put some rape seed oil – I add a big BIG slug of oil here – in a small pan, and add the chilli flakes.  Let them gently sizzle but not really fry or colour. Remove from the heat and pour onto the peas/garlic.  Mix it all up then with a potato masher, smash the pea/oil/garlic mixture so it’s quite squished. Add the finely chopped mint and stir it in.  Add the whole peas that you didn’t smash.  Add a surprisingly large amount of olive oil, you need it to be a bit oily, not swimming but you should see a slick of oil, even a little side-puddle.  Season well with salt and pepper.  The salt is important.  You can gently re-heat this now in the pan and serve, or let it go cold, cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.  I serve it warm, not scorching.  I think room temp would also be fine.  This is delicious with chicken. Obvs. And it is also lovely with the rat (above) mixed into the rat is even better, topped with masses of strong cheese of your choice. It is also lovely with a gurt big roasted goats cheese round (one each, please) plus chutney.  I also eat these peas with steak, salmon (the best combo after chicken), quiche and roast dinners.

Potato Cakes

These are simple and delicious.  I serve them warm and buttered as a non-sweet alternative before workshops with morning coffee but they are also great with eggs and bacon.

This makes enough for three workshops – so about 60 – 70 cakes.  I freeze the raw dough in batches for up to 1 month.

  • 3 lbs of potatoes – old, floury ones are best
  • 1 lb of plain white flour
  • About 6 oz of butter plus extra for frying and buttering
  • Milk
  • Rape seed oil
  • Salt and pepper

Peel and boil the potatoes – they need to be very tender.  Drain and mash them with the butter and a generous dash of milk.  Now you need this to be not sloppy but not really stiff and no lumps, needs to be smooth and fine.  Maybe more runny than if you were serving mash as you have flour to add yet.  Season well.   Let this go cool, almost cold.  Add the flour and work it in really well.   I guess at this stage you could add fresh or dried herbs, maybe chives. If you need more flour to make an elastic dough, go for it.  Tip it out onto a floured surface and give it a good seeing to.  Chill the dough. You can freeze it now if you want in food bags.

Roll it out to about 1.5 cm thick.  Cut out shapes – I used the scone cutter.  It won’t really stay in shape, it’s too elastic so it’s also OK just to cut it into squares or triangles if you prefer, that is what my mum always did.  In a non-stick frying pan, melt some butter with a bit of oil and gently fry the cakes.  The potato is cooked but the flour is raw so it needs to be allowed to cook properly, not too fast or it will taste raw and glue-y.  You want them golden brown.  I set them in a dish to keep warm in the oven as I fry the next batch and so on.  I then lightly butter them and serve hot or warm in a covered dish.

Note about freezing the dough:  this works well in food bags but the dough comes out very sticky once de-frosted so you have to add more flour and knead it all again.  After that it’s fine.

Cheese and Herb Scones

I serve these warm, buttered. They are also good as an accompaniment to soup instead of bread or balanced and baked on top of a stew as a cobbler-topping.

This makes about 24 which is enough for 2 workshops.  I mix up my metric and imperial, sorry.  (Not sorry).

  • 1.5 lbs of white self-raising flour
  • 250g of butter, cold (Note:  as you are also adding fat in the cheese, you can reduce this by 25 – 50g but I don’t)
  • about 6 – 8 oz of strong cheddar, grated plus a bit extra to top the scones (or other cheese in small chunks such as Stilton or goat cheese but I never serve these at workshops as a lot of people don’t like that sort of cheese which is sad as I love them)
  • 3 eggs and some milk
  • A big handful of finely chopped fresh chives (optional but delicious)
  • A small handful of very finely snipped fresh rosemary or thyme
  • Some rosemary or other edible flowers if available to top each scone

Add the chopped butter, cold, to the sifted flour and make a fine crumb by rubbing it in for an improbably long time – try and keep your hands mainly out – finger tips only – so it does not get hot.  Stir in the herbs and cheese.  Beat the eggs and the milk.  How much milk?  This is a ‘feel’ thing.  It needs to be spongy and moist, not stiff and not wet.  You also need some egg/milk mixture to paint the scones so either make some more with another egg or keep a drop back.

Amalgamate this – light touch, no pounding and tip out onto a well floured surface.  Firmly but gently, knead this but not for long.  Roll out to about 3.5cm high or a bit higher.  Cut the scones out with a well-floured cutter and place on a papered tray.  Paint with the egg/milk.  Pop some grated cheese on each one and then a sprig of rosemary flower or chive flowers or thyme.  Bake for about 20 minutes gas mark 4 or 5 or Aga baking oven.

The baked scones freeze brilliantly. I have never frozen the raw scones, but I think they’d be OK. I make this many before each group of workshops if I fancy serving them and they do 2 events. I only freeze them for a maximum of 2 weeks though.

The plain scones I serve are the same except I obviously omit the cheese and instead add about 3 oz of white sugar instead of cheese and herbs. I just paint them and add no topping. I make them a wee bit taller as I usually want these for cream-teas. That is very little sugar.  But it is plenty.

 

 

The Cowl is Done!

March 20th, 2017

The Felted Tweed Fairisle Cowl is now complete and it’s a beauty.

FI Cowl greys 1

There are also Kidsilk Haze and silk-lined versions of this fully reversible neat neck cowl. I have designed it to be fairly snug so there is minimal gappage at the neck but it is very easily sized up.  The ‘lining’ is in fact a mirror image of the other side but it is basically knitted in one piece, in the round and there is no sewing up.

FI Cowl greys 5

There is one place left on the Fairisle Cowl workshops and this is for the 3rd of June – you can see the event and book it here.

Several people have expressed an interest in the event, but cannot make the dates so if you would like to go on an event to make this, please let me know and maybe we can organise another date.

 

Fairisle Cowl

March 12th, 2017

I am currently working on the final details of the design for the Fairisle Cowl event in a few weeks time.  The concept for this is a little bit different, in that the cowl will be lined with a mirror-image of the Fairisle pattern on the outside.  Here is an image of the cowl in its first colourway:

FI Cowl grey and cream

The main area is closely patterned and is in fact a fast and easily memorised knit.  It gives a warm feel of tweed fabric and I love it.  So the workshop will revolve around knitting this – it is quite small, and then the technical challenge of knitting a mirror-image lining – but basically it is knitted in one piece and is not at all difficult.

An option at the event will be to knit it in Kidsilk Haze, colourwashed. Again this will be lined with a reversed lining, or with a silk-wool lining so that people who like Kidsilk Haze but who cannot wear it next to their skin can also make and wear this.

There is just one place left on this event – here are the details.

 

 

 

 

Some Of The Things I Am Still Doing

March 3rd, 2017

I am still:

  • allottmenting
  • caving
  • running
  • cycling

Today:  CAVING!

It is fair to say that, though I am still caving, I do it a lot less frequently and consequently even less well that I did a couple of years ago which is really saying something.  I caved a few times in 2016 and then last month, we went to South Wales to cave in Aggen Allwedd, a cave often nick-named Aggy.

We stayed at the hut of the Chelsea Speleological Society – they own this cottage, which is called White Walls (misleading; it is grey) which they acquired in the 1960s and renovated from an almost complete wreck.  This is the hut, with me wearing three layers under TWO winter coats:

White Walls - ACS outside hut

I am not someone who does well in cold conditions.  I like heat, sunshine, open fires, central heating, hot showers, electric blankets etc.  So going to South Wales in February, to a hut I had been warned was ‘basic’ in terms of mod-cons was a gamble.  And it was a very cold weekend – but it was OK! The place has central heating which though basic, does really warm up the sitting room; and we found a fan heater too.  The kitchen has no heating, and there is no door between it and the sitting room so that was tricky; and the scullery off the kitchen is unheated, cavernous and absolutely freezing.  This is where they keep the crockery, pans and the fridge – also this is where you wash up.

It is a tiny cottage, and the extensions they have done are (I think) all for the kit/shower/drying areas which are excellent in terms of space.  So upstairs there is just a landing, loo, library/office (members only) and a bunk room, sub-divided into a larger area for guests and a smaller members bunk room.  It’s cosy.

The sitting room, the kitchen, and the drying/shower room:

White Walls sitting room

White Walls shower and drying kit room

White Walls kitchen

The setting is just stunning, with perfect views over the valley and across to some other hills.  It is very remote but on good, tarmac roads and there are inhabited cottages nearby.  I loved it.  In summer, and at £5 a night, it would make an amazing base for walking.

This was the view that evening:

White Walls view

On the first afternoon, having arrived with about 2 hours of daylight, we walked to the cave entrance which is just over a mile away via a level, easy footpath.  This is a beautiful walk and dead flat.

The next day, we woke to snow and for a few hours it snowed quite hard.  But it didn’t cause any real problems as we were walking to the cave anyway. So off we set and entered the cave at about 11.00 am.  The entrance is a locked steel solid gate, through which you crawl and then this gives out into a low rocky passage which is a hands-and-knees crawl to bigger passage.  This is the entrance to the cave. Note icicles:

White Walls cave and icicles

White Walls - cave entrance

From here, you quickly encounter a rift passage which I did not like as it wasn’t wide enough to have your back on one wall and knees or feet on the opposite wall; nor did I think it was quite wide enough for me to drop down and squeeze along at floor level.  Florence just climbed up and shimmied along with knees and elbows out to rift over the drop at about 6 feet up.  I had a mini-melt-down.  But I did it in the end, with a lot of help, though there were actual tears.  The next bit of cave is the same, only this time I just dropped to the floor as it looked marginally less tight, and with one arm out and moving sideways, I shuffled through – and it wasn’t really tight, there was just one bit where I had to squish my boobs up and down to get past a tight-ish rock (my biggest body-measurement!) and then a little climb up at the very end.

Then you are just in climby, bouldery passage where you can walk, crouch and crawl with a few bits of flat-out belly crawling where the ceiling is really low – though at no point is there a tight squeeze and the low bits are nice and wide so it feels OK, even though there are two places where you have to have your head on one side or your helmet will get stuck. It is (or was in the tiny section I did) dry-ish with some pools and you do encounter a stream-way but I only heard it. There is just a lot of climbing, nothing really horrid but the boulders are massive and very slippery.  It was tiring.  In the rest of the cave, there are extensive areas of stream-way which Florence and Will have done to reach The Courtesan.  This is a spectacular formation which I will never see.

This rocky passage then begins to climb and you enter the boulder choke (do NOT go into the dig!) and then you are in Main Chamber.  Our destination was The Music Room, but this is c30 minutes of what I believe is easy walking passage on from Main Chamber.  I never made it. I was tired, largely I think due to my early panic in the first rift, which releases adrenaline and then I get very shaky.  This has not happened for a long time but I remember and know the symptoms.  I had two glucose tablets which really helped but I was thinking about getting back through the choke, back along the climby passages and of course, the last rift, so I had to tell them I was fine to cave out – but might not be OK for another hour plus on top of that.  So we turned back and caved out.

It was, of course, so much easier on the way back.  We were underground for just over three hours and I found it a physically very tiring trip but that may just be lack of cave-fitness and the full-on panic attack early on.  I thought those days were behind me.

When we pushed open the heavy metal gate and wriggled out, the snow had almost stopped and the day was very cold, but bright and beautiful.  I will be back, Aggy, and this time, I will go to the Music Room and even venture a little way along the Southern Streamway…

 

The Afternoon Tea Club 2017 – in support of Macmillan Cancer Care

February 17th, 2017

This year, there will be two Knit Clubs, and the proceeds from these will go Macmillan Cancer Care.  Here is the page to have a look and book your places. All you have to do is book, turn up with your knitting – and a tea-time contribution. I will do the rest.

Tea, cake, knitting, raffle for knitting prizes – sounds good, right?

Please come!

New Kidsilk Haze Cuffs Workshop Next Week!

February 17th, 2017

New Cuffs 3

Next Thursday, 23 February, I am teaching at Spin-a-Yarn in Devon and I am unveiling New Cuffs (name pending).  This is a fairly easy knit, with beads and optional sequins.  The cuffs are knit flat and then seamed.  They have some interesting stages beginning with a picot cast-on and a lace section before some easy beading and ribbing.  Nothing very taxing, but not boring either.  Also, they are a great way to perhaps learn to get to grips with Kidsilk Haze.  Cuffs are warming, pretty and make great gift-knits too.

New Cuffs 1

They are also colour-washed (again, optional) so great for using up some Kidsilk Haze in stash – or buying two yummy new shades, of course!

New Cuffs 2

I know there are a couple of places left, so contact the shop to book.  It would be lovely to see you there.

 

Conversations with Lily: The Trump Talks

February 6th, 2017

So, in all the years I have been blogging I have never (as far as I can remember) blogged about anything political.  No, for that you need to be be my friend on Face Book where I am more free with my political thoughts.  Such as they are.

This is a kind-of political blog post and I make no apology whatsoever.

Recently, some things have been happening that have somehow brought the worlds of politics and knitting (and maybe crochet, I am not sure) together. You may have noticed.  I am speaking of the Pussy Hats.  Arguably, knitters have always been ‘political’ and certainly many are active in causes such as environmental campaigning, animal and human rights, and global aid programmes.  This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, it’s just illustrative.  Knitting, and crafting is almost always done by perfectly normal people with passionate views on things other than fibre-content.  On the other hand, I have taken a decision, until now, not to be ‘political’ here, but desperate times and all that…

President Trump (and even now, as I type these two words, I still cannot quite believe it) has somehow gained (more or less) overall control of one of the world’s most influential nations.  And partly because of his documented and undeniable views on and treatment of women, and partly because of all the other things he thinks, some people have knitted a whole pack of pussy-hats.  And worn these hats on globally staged marches.  I whole-heartedly approve of this strong visual testimony against Trump and what I understand he stands for.  If you like him, well… that’s not really fine, though it is your free choice; but in a first for me, this is political blog post and I don’t like him, so you may want to leave now.

I do not for one moment think that even if everyone in the world knitted and wore a pink hat with ‘ears’, Trump would care or change his behaviour. But the point may be that it and all other forms of peaceful and solo or mass resistance, impact on the arguably more important groups: the ones who have the power to limit his actions now; and those who have the power, in four years, assuming that America is still a democratic republic, to vote for someone else.

Lily and I often talk about politics.  Despite the marked lack of politics on my website, we are a political family.  Here is a medley of some of our more recent Trump-related discussions.

(At the time of the release of the video footage of Trump talking about his incredible magnetism for women.  Oh, sorry, yes – I do mean the pussy-grabbing clip).

Lily:  Mum?

Me:  yes?

Lily:  if dad was recorded talking about grabbing someone’s pussy, what would you do?

Me:

Lily:  I mean, it’s not likely, but just like, what if he did…?

Me: (still groping – bad analogy? Or just too soon…? for some words) well…that isn’t just unlikely, it simply would never happen.  So I can’t even think of how I’d react. I imagine Trump’s wife had some evidence to suggest that he, on the other hand, might be a pussy-grabber.

Lily:  yeah, but say he did?

Me:  actually DO it, or get recorded talking about it?

Me again, and leaping into the pause:  no, look, sorry this is just too weird…

Lily:  you’re right.  No-one would ever want to record an interview with dad.

Me: no, but what I mean is, he would never do that.  I don’t think I know anyone who would do that.  Much less talk about it…Do you?

Lily:  I dunno…I guess you might never know until it’s too late?

Me:  I think with Trump there was previous form.  (Pause)…I was once grabbed on my leg by a guy at work…

Lily:  (assuming what I think she fondly imagines to be the expression of a therapist) so…do you want to talk about that?  How did that make you feel?

Me:  OK, yes I do.  He was a bit drunk, he was kind of in a position of authority and he grabbed my leg at a work lunch.  It was many years ago.  This ought not to be true, but it is:  things were different then.

Lily:  I hope you drop kicked his balls into the next room?

Me:  no. I wish I had.  But I just walked off.  It was a long time ago.

Lily:  Swoon, but how did he get through the crinoline you were wearing, m’lady?

Lengthy period of immature laughing on Lily’s part.

(Shortly before the US Presidential Election)

Lily:  Mum?

Me:  mmm?

Lily:  he’s not going to win, is he?

Me:  (without even having to ask what she meant):  no love.

Lily:  Mum?

Me: yes?

Lily:  is this like when I had that ear infection AND tonsillitis AND conjunctivitis and you said every day that I’d be better by tomorrow?

Me:  well…

Lily:  ‘cos that was a lie, wasn’t it?

Me:  Lils, you really are going to have to let that go!  And it wasn’t a lie because look – you are all better!  It was about five years ago.  Get over it.

Lily:  but it WAS a lie on all of the days before I DID get better, wasn’t it?

Me:  I think you need to differentiate between an actual lie, and an assertion of faith or belief in something that might happen and which you genuinely believe to be true or likely to become true, especially if – as was the case with your illness – you have the power to summon antibiotics and ice-cream.  Which I did.

Lily:  (momentarily stunned by my flawless logic).

Me:  so, in this case – the Presidential Election – I am asserting my belief that he will not win.

Lily:  is that faith, or just hope?  I mean, you said he wouldn’t get the nomination!

Me:  yes.  Yes I did and I am sorry that the Republican Party, over which I thought I had almost super-human powers of persuasion, did not in the end follow my sage advice and float him out to sea with a torch up his arse, and use him as an aid to shipping navigation.  But there we are.  They didn’t heed me.  I expect they’re sorry now.

Lily:  I only mean, you were wrong then, you were wrong about my tonsillitis and you might be wrong about him not winning!

Me:  I was not wrong about the tonsillitis.

Lily:  what about this?

Me:

Lily:…?

Me:  I am not wrong. It won’t happen.

(The day of the US Election.  This took place by ‘phone as I was away from home, working with a client – my other persona – and I was staying away to do this work).

Me:  are you OK?

Lily:  (gulping, sniffing wetly) no!

Me:  me neither…

Lily:  is it real?

Me: yes my love.  It is real.

Lily:  you said…

Me:  I know, enough with the tonsillitis already, oy!

Lily:  (wailing) I miss the Obamas !

Me:  I have to go…

Lily:  Don’t leave me too!

Me:  I’ll be home tonight, we will talk it all over then.  In the meantime, do not listen to the news or read stuff on Face Book.  OK?

Lily: OK…but Mum?

Me:  yes love?

Lily:  I am not being shallow or sexist or anything but to be honest if there was an orange-coloured woman politician who had hair like a yellow pillow, I would probably be all like – ‘hey, back off, it’s cool to be an orange woman, just ‘cos she’s a woman, you think it’s OK to be all judgy about her orange-looks and that – but if it was an orange man it’d be OK wouldn’t it’…but he IS orange with weird white patches round his eyes…so because he is a MAN it’s OK?  And… and just HOW COULD THEY HAVE VOTED FOR HIM?

Me:  (looking at my face for traces of Tangerine Dream foundation)…what?

Lily:  Hillary isn’t orange!

Me:  I think we need to get over the orange thing…

Lily:  I can’t. I think it’s spray-tanned on and the white bits are either where he wears goggles while his wife sprays him OR he sweats it off on that bit of his face.  So it’s on purpose.

Me: (to my colleague) no thanks. I’m not hungry anymore, I’ll just have tea please.

Me: (to Lily) look, love, I’ll be home tonight…wait… I am pretty sure his wife doesn’t spray-tan him…that is far more likely to be a job for the Vice-Pres…anyway, I’ll see you later.  It’ll be better.  We’ll eat some sweet potato chips and have a Magnum…

Lily:  he will still be President Elect though, won’t he?

Me: (gripped by an internal and silent struggle, in which truth wins, only because I am, apparently, a busted flush with the Republican Party and All Of America) yes. Sorry about that.  Unicorns are still real though…

(On the day of the inauguration).

Lily:  I can’t look.

Me:  me neither, let’s go out.

Lily:  do you feel sorry for her?

Me:  yes I do.  I think it was her last chance to be President…

Lily:  no, I mean Melania.

Me:  (genuinely stumped, because this has literally never occurred to me)…

Lily:  I mean, she has to live with him!

Me:  well that’s entirely her choice!  She does not have to.  She could walk away at any time and take hold of some self-respect again…

Lily:  Whoa lady!  I think you are forgetting one thing!

Me:  the money?  or the possessions?  or the Giant Mirrors In The White House into which she can gaze at her unchanging image for the next four (please God) years?

Lily:  no.  I mean the programming!  LOOK at her! She looks like she is in a cult!  We should send help.

Me:  I am not looking, I thought we agreed we would not look?  Anyway, what kind of help?

Lily:  a secret rescue squad – a dachshund-handler could go in with some cute dachshund puppies and while they were all distracted with the puppies, they could secretly ask her if she wanted to come with them…

Me:

Lily:  …and she’d totally go with them!  DACHSHUND PUPPIES!

Me:  …stranger things have happened…Trump wouldn’t be allowed to touch the puppies, would he?

Lily:  (scornfully) of course not Mum!  God.

(Some time later…)

Lily:  I have never seen Michelle look so – so…pissed off!

Me:  no, nor me. She looks amazing and so angry!

Lily:  look at Hillary, gazing up at her.  It’s so sad.

(I look and think, but do not say how Michelle must be very tall or Hillary very short).

Lily:  what do you think they will do now?  The Obamas?

Me:  if it was me, I’d drink about three huge Camparis, book a cruise ship just for the fam and bugger off on it for a few weeks.

Lily:  do you think Michelle will run for Pres?

(I don’t think this, but neither do I want to crush this last scrap of hope…)

Me:  …yes.

Lily:  is this like the time when I had tonsillitis…

Me:  OK!  No, it’s not like that time!  I am almost – no! I am in fact 100% sure she will run, and lo! she will win! and by the time that happens there will be no more pink wool in all of the world, for it will all have been knitted into Pussy Hats, which have become visible even from space, so great, hopeful and good is the pink-glow their massive pinkness sends out…

Lily:  have you been at the bloody Campari again Mum?

And so our quest, that is Lily and I, for answers and reasons continues, daily. I believe my loyal reader will not have been remotely offended by this post as I am sure her sensibilities are not so tender and also that we are kindred spirits, she and I.  If you were offended, your pussy hat, lovingly knit by me, is in the post. Mwah X

Brioche Knitting

February 3rd, 2017

This is beautiful Brioche, knitted flat, using Cocoon and Kidsilk Haze:

Brioche finished montage in brown and teal

I am teaching Brioche in 2017, a class on flat Brioche and a class on Brioche in the round.

The flat Brioche is very soothing knitting, with a fairly straightforward 4-row sequence.  This lends itself to scarves and throws and that is what I have designed.  Here are some images of the designs so far:

There are three courses on this flat Brioche and two are fully booked but there are spaces (two) on the event on 23 April, so why not come along?  I have made the stitch fairly simple and more ‘English’ I think and I am really enjoying the preparation. One interesting approach is to vary the yarns in use so I have been experimenting with Kidsilk Haze and Cocoon, as well as using yarns of the same weight.  It works beautifully.

Peep Into The Design Room…

January 5th, 2017

Here is a peep at some of the goodies we have been designing and knitting for your workshops in 2017.

Two Colour Brioche – knitted flat

We have Introduction to Two Colour Brioche in March, April and May.  The April date is the only one with spaces – there are two.  This course is all about getting to grips with this pleasing stitch – but hopefully I have Anglicised and simplified it a little.  This is not to say that it is difficult, but it is rather unusual.  I have sifted through several of the eleventy-nine variations on this theme and come up with the one I will teach you. So this course will walk you through knitting Brioche in one colour, and then we will move on to two colours.  I have ‘designed’ two scarves/throws – I say ‘designed’ but really, it is just a matter of deciding what yarns you want to use and then how wide/long you want it.  So it’s a stretch to call it designing. However, I have done the experimenting so you don’t have to.  One of the things I like best about Brioche is the opportunity to experiment a little, which we have been doing by blending yarns of differing weights.  You can view the course and book the remaining two places here.

Here are some examples of the way Brioche looks.  This is the warm brown and teal Kidsilk Haze pattern.

brioche-flat-teal-brown-montage

I do love it.  Often – and I especially need to remember this – less is more.  With Brioche, once you have mastered the rhythm of the stitch (and it is only slipping, knitting and purling, basically), I think it is fine to just let the Brioche, with its neat edges and reversible shadow-effect rib, do all the work.

And this is a neat grey and cream Aran:

brioche-flat-grey-cream-montage-2

Scarves and throws, by the way, will never go out of fashion and I for one am glad that they are there, constant and faithful in a frankly alarming world.  Long live the scarf – and Brioche extends its reign.

Kidsilk Haze Extravaganza

There is just one place left on this event.  One date is full, but there is a space on 1 April.

I do love Kidsilk Haze.  Oh!  Wait – did you not know?  OK – well I am the Kidsilk Haze Queen.  Self-appointed, granted and ruler only of my own stash – which is impressive.  I have written two books devoted to it and even the books I have published that are not all about Kidsilk Haze have some of the cocaine of the yarn world smuggled in.  Yes, even felted.  Anyway, this year I am returning to my roots in many ways.  And one of these ways is The Kidsilk Haze Extravaganza events.

At this workshop, I will offer you a choice of three designs.  Two are brand new.  One is a pair of almost entirely decorative beaded cuffs – fairly easy, knitted flat.  Next is a new design adapted from Rise in Elements:

rise-montage

But this Rise is knitted in the round, and features Kidsilk Haze plus a DK wool. This design is probably the most challenging.  Finally, Gathering Scarf from my second (now out of print) book, Little Luxury Knits.  This takes only one ball of Kidsilk Haze, is lightly beaded, and is an unusual but fairly easy lace knit:

gathering-new

And then…we have also worked this same design in a silk-wool DK blend, wider and longer, and behold, it is a thing of great beauty:

gathering-in-dk-1

I have done this so that even if you are for some sad reason, possibly medical, unable to wear or knit Kidsilk Haze, you can still do the course!  Rise can also be knitted with a substitute for the Kidsilk Haze. Please apply to the management in writing for more details.

Anyway as I say, just one place is left, so do come.

I will reveal more glimpses through the crack in the design room door shortly for the Brioche in the Round, and Fairisle Courses.

Knit Camp 2017

January 1st, 2017

Very exciting news – Knit Camp 2017 is fully booked.  It’ll be amazing!

NEW_FH_QuoteGenerators.indd

If you are booked on, I will be in touch very soon and there will be up-dates throughout 2017 as October approaches.  If you think you might like to come, please do contact me in case I get any cancellations.  I have started a waiting list.

A Short Story for Christmas

December 23rd, 2016

Elizabeth

In a sea of tinsel and cards festooning personal work spaces, one desk stood out as a Christmas-free zone.  Slightly aloof from its neighbours, as befitted the slightly elevated status of its occupant, this desk was pristine and clear of any clutter.  No festive decorations adorned the desk top.  A copy of the Local Government Chronicle Year Planner was fixed to the notice board, beside the fire wardens’ extension numbers, and a postcard, depicting an image of Venice, at dawn.  Key dates were highlighted on the year planner, red dots for financial and accounting deadlines, yellow for annual leave.  On the desk, a stationary organiser and a coaster flanked the screen.  Otherwise, the desk was utterly clear.

 

Around the open-plan office, strings of Christmas cards and reindeer antler head-bands, jostled with family snaps and post-it notes dotted about the screens and over the desks of other workers.  ‘We may be the finance team,’ said Paul,  ‘but that doesn’t mean we don’t know how to have a good time!’

 

Elizabeth kept her eyes fixed on the screen, scanning her email in-box for the figures she needed to complete the month-end financial processes.  It may be Christmas, she thought, but that doesn’t mean that the finances will run themselves.  She was the team leader in this office, a member of the Finance Department in the London borough council where she had worked since leaving school twenty five years earlier.

 

In that time, she had worked hard, studied for her accountancy qualifications, made her way slowly up the ladder.  Living at home with her parents, and working all the time to ‘get on’, her studious looks and quiet manner had left her slightly outside the warm circles of easy friendships which other girls seemed to take for granted.  Then, she had quietly longed to be inside the circles.  Now, she had established her own pattern, rather solitary admittedly, but comfortable nonetheless.

 

Since the death of first her father and then, some years later, her mother, Elizabeth had remained in the family home.  At first, stunned with loss and loneliness, she had simply existed, coming to work each day and finding comfort in that routine, knowing how proud her father had been of her achievements.  No-one could have guessed how deeply she had felt that loss.

 

Gradually, as the years had gone by, she had begun to ‘do up’, as her mother would have said, the little Victorian terraced house.  An innate sense of good, if understated taste had materialised.  Little by little, the house had been changed, room by room, colour by colour, retaining its comforting childhood warmth and yet at the same time, achieving a stylish air that was her own.

 

Today, the 23rd of December, was the day of the office Christmas lunch.  Screeching laughter from the far side of the office heralded the arrival from the cloakroom of the bevy of office beauties, who this year had decided to come dressed as Santa’s Elves, gorgeous and voluptuous in green mini-skirts and brief tops.  Elizabeth sighed.  No more work would be done this afternoon by anyone in her department, other than her.  She closed down her computer and prepared to face the terrible, eye-wateringly loud music in Big Joe’s, the Christmas party venue of choice in her department.  Democracy was a harsh master.

 

Elizabeth knew how ill-suited she was to take part in such festivities.  She knew she looked as awkward as she felt, almost physically unable to force herself to take part, even to be there as a witness, let alone a participant.  Over the years, she had learned to steal herself against the conflicting emotions that attending these parties brought.  Why couldn’t she be an elf?  Once upon a time, she had longed to be able to simply let go and join in.   It was hopeless; whatever bound her, whatever cleaved her tongue to the roof of her mouth, and placed a shadow of actual fear behind her eyes, there was no escaping it.  Both nature and nurture had cast her.

 

These days, her best hope was to avoid ruining it for the others.  Sensitive and intensely shy, Elizabeth knew how most of them felt.   How they dreaded being the one drawn to be her ‘secret Santa’: (oh God, no!  What on earth can I buy for her?  Swap…?), how they urged other, newer staff to sit down first so that they could avoid being seated beside her.  She always made a valiant effort, drank maybe half of the dreadful and lurid Welcome Cocktail, ate the lunch and soon after, departed, leaving them to the rest to their afternoon of – what?  Drunken dancing, unfortunate and regretted kisses with inappropriate colleagues or strangers, an uncertain journey home, sleeping and drooling past their stop?   No matter, by three o’clock she’d be back at her desk and the next time she saw her colleagues would be a week or more away.

 

She walked along to the restaurant, exchanging stunted and intermittent small talk with her deputy, David and a new team member, Josie.  The elves skipped and larked ahead, the bells on their green pixie-hats clearing a path in the busy crush of shoppers. The office males watched the office elves.  Heads turned in the street as they passed, even in this busy city with so many parties, these elves made an impression.

 

In Big Joe’s, they joined a throng of noise, bodies, alcohol and food.  Swept instantly to their table by a theatrically bored waitress, who announced that she was Sasha and she was their server today, before plonking down jugs of purple-coloured drinks at each end of the table: The Welcome Cocktail.  Sasha shouted instructions at them regarding how long they were allowed to occupy the table before the next party arrived, the rule regarding the throwing of food, and demanded to know the identities of The Fish and The Veggie.  Food arrived, wine was ordered, Elizabeth, as always, had given sufficient money to David to buy many bottles of wine, her gift to the team.

 

Sitting beside Elizabeth, Josie had drawn the short straw.  Flicking anxious glances around the table, Josie wished she was an elf.  Next year.  In the meantime, ‘are you doing anything nice for Christmas?’ she asked Elizabeth.  Elizabeth knew that an honest answer was not required.  She could (but would not) honestly reply, ‘No, Josie, not really.  You see, I live alone since the death of my parents and my only living relative is a cousin in New Zealand.  When I leave the office tonight, I might not see or speak to a soul until I come back to the office on the 2nd of January.  And you, Josie?’

 

That would fail to convey the real truth.  Yes, she’d be alone but after many years of railing against her lot, time had dulled this, and now, this week of solitude each year, had become welcome and full of promise.  She was not without friends, albeit a small number and they were often busy with their own families at Christmas time.  Being alone at this time of year had in fact become her choice, now.  Besides, to reply truthfully would make Josie cringe with awkward blushes.  It would cast a brief but painful pall of silence around them, infecting their listening neighbours with a mixture of pity and fear – most people fear solitude and thus, by association, those who endure it, Elizabeth knew this.

 

‘Oh yes, I always enjoy this time of year, I’ll have a nice quiet time.’ That was the correct response.  Josie, relieved, told Elizabeth all about her own plans, still living at home with her mum, how she’d see her boyfriend and her mates.  ‘I never know what to buy my boyfriend ‘cos men are hard to buy for aren’t they?  All he says is get me some music.  He loves his music, but you can’t just give your boyfriend that, can you?  For his 18th I bought him a gold chain but that was a special birthday and anyway, we’re saving up to buy a flat.  So me and his mum are clubbing together to get him a Red Letter Day…you know, a special day out, he wants to go quad biking…’

 

Elizabeth marked the passage of time in Big Joe’s by the milestones of courses and drinks.  Josie was a nice girl, she thought, and blessed with that gift Elizabeth had never owned – the gift of being able to chatter and fill silence with words until there was no more space to fill.  Elizabeth had longed for it once, had tried to nurture it and practice its art, to no avail.  Her mother had been a talker, Elizabeth was much more like her father, a quiet man, happy at home, peaceful and content.

 

No, Elizabeth thought, in her very limited experience, men were not hard to buy for.  Admittedly, the only man for whom she had ever bought gifts had been her father, but she always knew precisely the right gift for him and he had always been so happy with her careful and thoughtful choices.

 

Elizabeth feared that the purple cocktail, from which she took tiny sips at five minute intervals, might be staining her teeth.  It tasted of soap and sugar with a huge slug of a possibly eastern European spirit providing an unwelcome burning kick.  Josie, unused to drinking, was very pink and shiny.  Next year, she’d be an old hand.  Plates and cups were whisked away, it was time to vacate the table and allow the next sitting to take their places.  Deeper into the recesses of the restaurant, a tiny dance floor was thronged with post-lunch party goers.  Deep and insistent bass music literally made the soles of Elizabeth’s feet vibrate and her ears itch inside.

 

More drinks were bought as the office party pressed towards the booths and tables around the dance floor.  Time to leave.  Elizabeth, a veteran of such situations, had wisely refrained from leaving her coat in the cloakroom, where the queue was now at least fifteen minutes long.  She edged towards David.  Yelled goodbyes, brief and awkward hugs, huge waves and cheers from the elves, who by now were very drunk.

 

The door was in sight as she pressed through yet another wave of office parties freshly arriving, eagerly awaiting their Welcome Cocktail jugs.  Outside, Elizabeth was surprised, as one often is after being at the cinema during the day time, to find it was still quite light.  And beautifully cold.  She walked briskly back to the office.  Two or three more hours at work and then she’d leave for the holiday.

 

The train journey home was slightly less crowded than usual, many of the commuters were either already on holiday or at parties such as the one she had recently fled.  At her home station, she bought an evening paper as usual and walked home, the crowds thinning as she neared her road, turning off the main street full of lights and people in the shops, into the neat side street where she had lived all life.  Many windows were bright with Christmas lights.  Elizabeth regretted the recent practice of more and more decorations coming out each year, reindeer on porches, inflatable snowmen keeling wildly about in front gardens as they slowly leaked air, trees laden with nets of lights.

 

Round the bend in the road, her own house came in sight.  Soft, creamy white lights bordered her front window.  Small red velvet ribbons were tied to the branches of the two bay trees at the front door.  How amazed her colleagues would have been to see that she did acknowledge Christmas after all.  Inside, a tree stood in the hallway, small, but fresh and alive in its pot.

 

The tree decorations were old, each one evoking a childish Christmas memory.  This tiny pair of scales with a pearly hoop to hang on the tree had been given to her mother by her father more than fifty years ago.  Delicately beaded slippers, doll-sized, with Turkish pointy toes, hung on a faded red satin ribbon.  Her father had told her that these slippers were worn by the Christmas Tree Fairy each night for dancing, and each dawn, as long as the tree was up, she’d carefully hang the slippers back on the branches before slipping off to sleep all day.  Each morning when the young Elizabeth had run downstairs to see the tree again, the slippers would, just as he said, be hung back on the tree – but always in a different position.  Proof, had she needed it, that the story was true.  Tarnished but still gleaming, a set of glass baubles in all the vivid jewel colours her father had loved, chosen by a five year old Elizabeth in Woolworth’s almost forty years ago.  A childish string of cardboard discs, covered in red shiny paper, made by her at school and lovingly stored by her mother for all these years.  Each New Year’s day, she packed them away in the wooden box her father had made for them, and with a tinge of sadness, put them back into the attic.  Each December, one week before Christmas day, the tree was brought in from the garden and the box unpacked.  Then she did really commune across the years with her parents again and feel them to be somehow, and all too briefly, sitting with her, watching her excitement and pleasure as each one was unpacked and rediscovered.

 

The house was warming up, the heating was welcoming her home.  So, Christmas had begun, a week of leisure was upon her, wanted or not.  Drawing the curtains, lighting the fire, cooking her supper, Elizabeth made her plans for the seven days ahead.

 

Each Christmas Eve, she and her father had had a ritual which only they shared.  This was to invent, each year, some excuse to walk from the house to the shops on the High Street, just before they all closed for the holiday.  Although all the shopping had been done, (certainly her mother would have seen to that) her father had always said, at about two o’clock, ‘Beth, come on, I have to go to the shops for your mother.’  Her mother would smile and tut, excluded from the game but happy to see them play.  ‘We haven’t got any bacon, Beth, will you come with me to the butcher?’  Or it might be coffee beans, or dates, or chestnuts.  Off  they’d go, buy the shopping and then walk about the High Street, watching the chemist and Woolworth’s and the green grocer shutting up for Christmas.   Just before they actually did close, and it all became too sad, they’d hurry home with the bacon, and shutting the door behind him, her father would call to her mother.  ‘All are safely gathered in,’ he’d say, happy because he had all he had ever wanted, and they were both safe.

 

Elizabeth spent the next day – Christmas Eve – at home as usual.  She read the morning paper, feeling luxurious and lazy because it was a weekday.  She emailed her cousin in New Zealand.  She looked with pleasure at the food in the fridge and in the freezer and in the pantry.

 

She knitted.  Beside the chair in the sitting room stood a small wooden blanket chest.  Elizabeth sat in the chair and reached into the box, fetching out an old cloth work bag with worn wooden handles.  Her fingers worked quickly and smoothly. Dark rose-wood knitting needles gleamed, and butter-soft yarn, glowing rich wine-red, slipped through her hands, onto the needles, off the needles, the fabric of the knitting growing and gathering into her lap.  At her side, the old knitting bag yielded the yarn.  This bag was etched deep and lovely with all her memories of home and holidays, with its pockets and pins, yarn and needles, lists and books, pebbles, shells and pencils.  It had been her mother’s.  Now it was hers.

 

At two o’clock, she put on her coat and gloves, and stood in the hall, looking into the mirror for a moment or two.  A narrow, solemn face, the grey eyes and long sloping eyebrows so like her father.  Leaving the house, she walked slowly to the High Street.  The shops were not the same, but there was still a chemist and green grocers.  There was still a butcher’s shop, they were lucky.  It was a sought-after area now, with upwardly mobile young families eager to move there.  What would her father have made of ‘The Truckle of Cheese’ and ‘The Olive Tree Deli’ she wondered?  He would have loved them, she knew that, he would have loved the plenty and the warmth and the newness of far-away foods.

 

She bought some smoked bacon at the butcher’s and in the delicatessen, a bag of coffee beans.  Just before the shops closed, she walked quickly home.  Closing the door behind her and leaning back against it, she held the shopping bag close to her face and breathed in the smokey-bacon, coffee bean smells.  All was safely gathered in.

 

© this story is copyright to, and remains in the ownership of, Alison Crowther-Smith. 

 

 

Seasonal Musings

December 17th, 2016

Some of my best and worst Christmases.

Best

I am about eight.  My brother is five. We open our presents and it is the usual mix that was probably normal back then, in the dark ages.  A good many of the presents we were given were highly practical.  I remember getting a hold-all the year before I left home to go to university.  I was very pleased with it too.  We often got serviceable shoes, and hand-knitted cardigans, for example.  But this year, in among the gifts, I get a nightdress.  Not an M&S cotton nighty.  This was a swishy, chiffony nightdress, more like a real dress, with a layer of peach and a layer of cream chiffon, a modest gathered neck tied with a narrow peach ribbon, and sheer puffed sleeves, with elastic at the wrists and a flowing cuff.  Well, I wore it all day. I ate my Christmas lunch in it.  I wore it all Boxing Day.  What I never did was sleep in it.  It was too good for that – and also slightly annoying in bed, with the layers and so on.  So I slept in the cotton ones and folded the peachy one up on the chair. I have no idea why I was given such a prize but oh!  how I loved that nightdress and wore it until it was well above the knee and mother said I could not wear it anymore.  It wouldn’t bother me now! I’d probably teach in it…

Worst

I am a proper grown-up.  I know this because I am apparently and improbably in charge of two small children, Florence and Lily, who are nine and two years old respectively.  We all, including Mark, have ‘flu.  Not a bad cold, this is real ‘flu.  It had been a grim December anyway because my mother had been admitted to hospital in Manchester early in the month – in fact, on the day I started a new job – with a serious and complex condition.  She was still in hospital and we had made several long trips to Manchester from Somerset already – but now we were all too ill to go up so my father would not have us with him either.  On Christmas Eve, my friend’s boyfriend, who lives in London and has super-powers which caused him to be able to get hold of the one thing Florence most desired and which was unabtainable in Somerset – a Furby, is due to call in en-route to Cornwall.  Do you know what a Furby is or was?

Here is one:

✨ FURBY Original 1998 model 70-800 Tiger Electronics Used with tags GRAY/White

The originals are now highly sought after.  So anyway, by Christmas Eve we are a plague-house.  Somehow, we drag ourselves and the girls to the doctors and he gives us All The Drugs which we cash in moments before the pharmacy shuts for a festive two-week break.  We all have chest infections on top of the ‘flu and some of us have tonsillitis.  I think we probably ought to have gone to A&E but we didn’t. Late that evening, the Furby arrives. My friend’s boyfriend takes one look at me, as I open the door and  sway alarmingly towards him.  He steps just close enough to put the Furby on the step, and then backs away.  Wise.  I take the Furby in its box and hide it.  I suppose I paid him, I can’t remember and I would not have touched that money if I was him.

Furbys can talk, sort of.  They make weird high-pitched coo-ing and purring and chirruping noises, activated by movement. We are all too ill to do anything except lie down.  We make a camp in our bedroom, and the girls, who no longer know it is Christmas, sleep on mattresses on each side of our bed.  Here we spend a feverish night.  There are tears and fever-induced nightmares.  The girls were pretty upset too.  I think I may be dying and I don’t care.  By dawn on Christmas morning, the antibiotics which I double-dosed us all on, are beginning to kick in.  One of us breaks out of Camp Plague to make our first hot drinks for several days – we can swallow!  I think Florence knows it is Christmas Day but Lily has no idea and is in any case asleep properly for the first time in 48 hours and will sleep the clock round.  But we don’t ‘do’ Christmas today; we just lie down.  When it is light, the ‘phone rings.  This is in the hall.  Mark veers down the stairs to answer it, and he brings it up to me. My heart almost stops and I think my throat will close and choke me.  My mother has been moved overnight to another hospital in the city and as we endured our terrible night of illness, she had endured far worse – emergency surgery for an unexpected further complication.  She survived it, but she was in an ICU.  My father had been there all night.  We could not even get dressed, let alone help him, or her, in any way.  I sit on the edge of the bed, still holding the ‘phone after dad has rung off, and from below the stairs, in the depths of the cupboard where I had stowed it, the Furby somehow begins its errie, warbling repertoire of electronic cheeps and half-formed words.  The sound of that awful Christmas in the mid-1990s. I hate the Furby.

Best

I am twelve.  In the house on The Pyghtle, Wellingborough, all the windows in the kitchen are steamy and running with condensation that must be part sprout-essence, they have been boiling for so long now.  My mother is making the Christmas lunch, and is still managing to look quite glamorous in a chic shift dress with a diamante choker-collar and kitten heels, despite also being rather flushed and having a slight issue with the perm – due I think to the sprout-sauna we have created.  She is simultaneously carving the capon (no turkey for us, capons were far superior, she believed, and so therefore, did we), drinking a giant schooner of ‘sherry’ (Emva Cream or Harvey’s Bristol Cream, her favourite), and smoking a cigarette.  The cigarette was perched on a green ashtray, just next to the capon, actually, the tip scarlet from her lipstick, the smoke adding to the brussel sprout fug.

We had my Grandmother staying with us as we often did, and for the first time in my life, I sensed that maybe having Grandma there was not, for my mother, the unalloyed joy that it was for me.   I adored my Grandma.  She was tiny and wry and I had spent a lot of my very young life with her.  But now, here was mum, under the influence of her second or possibly third schooner, quietly muttering about things.  I was a very greedy child and mainly I was focused on grabbing scraps of capon, but I knew that I was also privy to the first chink in the grown-up armor that my parents wore.  It didn’t make me think any less of Grandma, who had my unconditional devotion, or my mother who I thought was an amazing person.  But it did make me feel rather grown up. Mum shoves the schooner of sherry across the red Formica kitchen top towards me.  Leaning against the counter, hands greasy with capon, all the carving done, she lights another cigarette and says:  have a swig.  I do. It is delicious, if a bit hot-making.

There is so much to look forward to!  Capon for a start (I told you I was greedy), and dad was going to get out the projector and hang a sheet on the wall after lunch and show the holiday slides from Anglesey that summer, and Grandma shared my bedroom so at night when we went to bed, we could talk until she forbade it and the quiet Grandma snoring began.  I go into the garden to get some coal, always my job and I like doing it. From outside, as I shovel up coal and bash the big lumps into small pieces, I can see the sprouty-smokey air coming out of the top kitchen window as it evaporates into the cold outside.  Though I can’t see her clearly through the misted-up glass, I can see the outline of my mother as she moves to and fro inside the kitchen.  And I can hear her singing, with the radio.  She has a sweet, rather warbling and carrying voice.  I reckon the neighbours on both sides can probably hear it too.  I am completely happy.

Workshop Gift Vouchers Now Available

December 8th, 2016

I only sell vouchers when I actually have workshops with spaces – and at the moment there is very good availability for 2017, so the workshop vouchers are back!

You can buy vouchers here. It is important that when you do this, you choose an event and tell me about it, so I can immediately reserve that place for your friend.  I will take it from there – the link explains it all.

It does make a lovely gift and I hope you will buy one for the special knitter in your life.  Or, if you are the special knitter in someone’s life, pass this on to them!

Buy one here.

See the available events here.

2017 Courses – Now Live

December 3rd, 2016

The courses are up and it’s the biggest year ever!  Here they are – do come!

We have Fairisle and Brioche, cables and beads, steeking and gifts – and of course, Christmas.

It really won’t be the same without you, so please take a look and Kathryn and I hope to see you here in 2017.

Here is the link.

Free Pattern: Meet James

November 28th, 2016

Here is a free pattern!  Simple, stylish, fast and economical.  The hat is knitted in the round, and uses aran-weight yarn.  It is a pattern for a mans hat but I have added notes for a woman’s hat and also on making further changes.

I hope you enjoy it.

james-twisted-rib-four-quartered-hat

Knit Camp 2017

October 30th, 2016

As you may know, Kathy and I have been planning a Knit Camp experience; most of these plans have been in our heads – until now.  Now I am ready to ask you if you would like to come with us, next October from Friday 6th until Sunday 8th, at Bailbrook House in Bath.  At the end of this post is an outline document with lots of initial information.

exterior-in-full

To gauge interest, I am asking people to tell me if they would like to go on the pre-registration list.  This commits you to nothing, but it does guarantee you a place, up to my maximum number, which is not all that high as we need to have an appropriate sized group for teaching.

Here are a few basic facts:

  • It is not a knitting holiday or Knit Club away-event.  It is an exclusive and luxurious weekend, but this is Knit Camp – two intense days of knitting with a lot of technical content.
  • I am designing The Bailbrook Collection for this event.  Three of these designs, which are inspired by the beauty and history of Bath, will form the basis for the weekend.  One project is relatively simple, one is moderate, one is more complex and challenging.  They can all be knitted with Kidsilk Haze – or with another yarn. It will be very flexible and we will be delighted to help you with yarn and bead choices.
  • You will choose one design, but all participants will have all the designs and we will be more than happy to teach you any and all of the techniques.
  • I have chosen what I think is a beautiful venue in Bath, which was once home to a knitting and button-making school for children.  I love that historical fact and I think it is only right that my first ever residential event should mean a return of the knitting school to Bailbrook House, if only for two days.

duke-of-clarence-private-dining-room

Anyway, please read the attached and then, if you think you might like it, please contact me and tell me if you would like to be on the pre-registration list. If you do want to go on the list, you will get first refusal of the places when I start to take confirmed bookings.

We have so many plans for this weekend, so many design ideas, new teaching, and new adventures!  Plans are also afoot for little treats and gifts for you all.  It will not be a huge group, as I said, but with just about 25 spaces, I think we will have a wonderful, energising and bonding experience. You will work hard at my Knit Camp.  We will work hard to make it the most special experience.  And you will be spoiled a bit too, with lovely bedrooms, private dining and lovely food.  You will need it!

Please let me know what you think. I hope you can come. Here is the outline:

knit-camp-2017-proposal-document

 

 

New Moebius Course, 18 February 2017

October 27th, 2016

Hello there!  Here is a new course, in February 2017 (a repeat of November 2016).  NEW Moebiuses.  I have designed two new ones and I can also take bookings from those new to Moebius knitting as we can teach two groups between us – beginners learn all the stuff and make a very pretty cowl, while those who have done it before have a refresh and knit one of the new designs.

Moebiuses are the coolest thing you will ever knit and they are absolutely lovely to wear.  You won’t regret it.

There are three places available, which you can book here.

 

 

The Axis of Evil (AKA Squirrel for lunch)

October 18th, 2016

So, recently, as you may have read, my good friend Hilda sadly died.  It was a shock.  It is still a shock.  And while Hilda was in hospital and then after she had died, I had her dog, Toby, here to stay.

My dogs didn’t really like Toby at first.  It’s OK now, kind of.  But Medlar really, really hates Toby and he is never getting over it.  Even though Toby isn’t here now, Medlar still approaches the house sideways, on his toes, ready to attack-slash-run.  Not attack/run.  No, I mean slash-run.  He is very aggressive.  Having three dogs and a seething cat in the house was not restful.  There was never any peace until bed-time when I placed the animals in several different parts of the house.

One day, just a few days after Hilda’s death, I had some ladies who attend my workshops here, come over for a technical knitting solving thing – coffee with DPNs on the side. I just do not know why I didn’t cancel or rearrange it as I was honestly still in shock and we had not even sorted out the funeral, but it never occurred to me call it off.  So these lovely ladies arrived, I popped them into the workshop room and then went to make coffee – and round up the three dogs (three dogs, by the way, is too many dogs.  Do not do it.  You’re welcome). Only Toby was present and correct, if by present and correct you mean turning somersaults on the borders and eating shells and stones ‘cos that is what he mainly does.  No sign of my boys.

I had to find them and then place them, all three of them, in specific and safe places before returning to my guests.  I called, whistled, cursed (quietly) and finally resorted to shaking the biscuit box in the front garden.  I have created a sort of Pavlovian reaction among the good village folk here too – when I shake the dog biscuit box, they form a line outside the gate.  Rupert swaggered over, got a biscuit and I placed him in the kitchen.  No sign of Arthur, who is the nicest of all my animals and very biddable.  Eventually after some castanet-standard biscuit percussion, he emerged from the border.  With a squirrel’s head, perfect and looking me right in the eye, sticking out of his mouth.

Squirrels have really large heads.  Well this one did – its head was almost the same size as Arthur’s head. This created a surreal impression of a two-headed dachshund where one of the heads was growing right out of the main head.  Also, the squirrel’s eyes were open and as Arthur sashayed up the path, the squirrel head kind of bobbed and swayed.  Now, I know, realistically, if a squirrel is so far down inside a dog’s throat/stomach you can’t see the body, it can’t still be alive.  But I was as far from rational as I am from New York, and so I did what I think we would all do in just this situation.  I screamed at the top of my voice.  This set off a short chain of reactions.  First, Arthur froze and bellied-down but tried as hard as he could to swallow the squirrel.  Second, Toby and Rupert cartwheeled out of the kitchen like a two-headed poodle/dachshund freak-show act.  Third (I imagine) traffic stopped and children were ushered indoors at the school and kindergarten, both of which have the pleasure of being within earshot of Court Cottage.

I knew I had to get the squirrel out of Arthur’s mouth.  I’m not good with stuff like offal, in fact I can’t have it in the house and so I was just certain I couldn’t get hold of it and pull.  I was also sure Arthur would resist me.  Yet, I had two ladies in the dining room, literally 30 feet away – and I had to get back in there and knit. Or at least not be hysterical.  My screaming matured into a really sweary stream of consciousness.  And a whole tirade of eugh. Arthur was very afraid.  Toby and Rupert were hysterical.  Poor Toby, he never signed up for this mad boot-camp experience.

I forced myself – and I still don’t know how – to grab the head of the squirrel and pull.  Arthur resisted a bit then suddenly let go. And that is all there was – just the head.  No body.  It was either still in the shrubbery, or in the dog.  My money is on the dog.  I hurled the head into the border and Rupert sprinted after it like a starving wolf who has never had back surgery.  But I was too fast and I dragged the bloody, boiling pack of dogs back into the house. Then I scrubbed my tembling hands, and my arms, face, and neck with boiling Dettol and wire wool, made the coffee and went back into the dining room.

‘I’m sorry about that’ I murmured.  No problem, they intimated.  Just as if they had no idea of what had just happened, just feet away from the window of the room where I had left them for an awkwardly long rest.  We knitted for a bit, resolving tricky things as we went.  Then Florence who often calls in during her break at work, popped her head in, and said:  ‘Is Rupert in here?’ No.  When I last saw the dratted threesome they were in a squirrel coma.

I hastily excused myself and joined Florence in the kitchen.  She was furious as she had been fruitlessly searching for Rupert for about ten minutes. We deployed the dog biscuit box and went back into the garden.  No sign of him.  Toby happily trampled a few borders and Arthur went to look for the squirrel head.  Ominously, it had gone.  Suddenly, Rupert popped out of the border – with a new, and absolutely huge squirrel in his mouth.  But this time, the head was inside his mouth and the whole of the rest of the body was hanging out.  He could hardly walk!  He kept tripping over the sodding squirrel as it lunged and lurched about – oh, it was dead alright, and it was just the most bizarre and nightmarish puppetry. I honestly wondered, at that moment, if I was in fact asleep and dreaming.

I was actually crying by now – tears of utter rage, and revulsion, for I knew what I had to do. Both Florence and I were now totally oblivious to the fact that everyone within a 200 yards radius of the house, including the people in my dining room, would definitely be able to hear our piratical swearing and for my part, jagged sobbing. We just did not care and our yelled oaths were truly heartfelt, if a bit repetitive.

Our only hope was to distract Rupert with dog biscuits and then, when he dropped the squirrel, to grab it and get it away.  A very hasty discussion revealed that Florence was unwilling to be the squirrel-grabber. And after all, I had already wrestled a squirrel head from one dog that morning, it was in danger of becoming my party-piece. So she festooned the path with many biscuits, casting them before Rupert like savoury, hefty confetti.  He hesitated…he loves those biscuits and frankly I think we were all wondering how he’d swallow the enormous squirrel, so he dropped it and still snarling at me, started eating the manna from heaven while I – a true heroine, picked up the headless squirrel and kind of pogo-ed up the path with it in my outstretched hand.  I hurled it into the kindling box.  And then, as I am confident you would have done, I had to dance and jog about on the spot for a few moments while flicking my hands about in a frenzied routine of grossed-out devil-casting.  You would have done the same, right?

A few moments later, after another full decontamination routine, plus face-washing to reduce the redness and swelling of angry tears, I calmly rejoined the knitters.  There is simply no way on this good earth that they did not hear all this and frankly, had I been in that room, I would either have left by the window and never come back, OR joined us in the garden. But anyway they must be much calmer than me.  One lady simply said, hesitantly raising her delicate hand – ‘You seem to have something in your hair.’ My inner hysteria, always only lightly dusted with calm, almost burst forth – in case it was a squirrel body-part; but it was only a twig.

My dogs are hounds.  They will hunt and kill and eat things.  But I am 100% sure, on reflection, that Medlar had a dark hand in this terrible scene.  He probably wanted Toby to eat the squirrels and die, or at the very least be in big trouble.  But Toby will hardly eat his own dinner let alone giant rodents that the cat has winged.  Oh yes, it was Medlar, and my lads just went in for the kill.   Were you watching, Hilda?  Hope you enjoyed it more than I did!

Hilda

October 9th, 2016

If you have been on one of my workshops here, you may well remember Hilda.  She often came down to the house at about tea time to sit with us at the end of the day, have a cup of tea and a slice of cake, and hear all about what we had been doing.

hilda-1

Well, last month, Hilda died.  It was very sudden.  She went on holiday, became unwell, was admitted to hospital first abroad and then after being air-ambulanced back, here in Somerset but a week later she died.

Hilda was 80.  But really, she was about 40 years old in spirit, determination and character.  I know 80 is a good age, but it’s not good enough for me and Hilda, because Hilda was one of my closest friends and much more than that, to me.  A surrogate mum, I suppose, with all that goes with that – ups, downs, tiffs, laughs, tears, and mostly, love.

When we moved here, from Burnham-on-Sea, which may as well be That London as far as some locals are concerned, Hilda was the first person I met. If you don’t count the old goat who stomped up the path at 7.30 one Saturday morning just after we moved to bang on the door and moan about the hedge by the pavement.  Hilda was not from Puriton.  She was from South Wales originally and then had moved all over the UK and the world with her RAF husband.  But unlike me, she had a great gift for overcoming barriers and she might as well have been born and raised in this village, because she was an integral part of its fabric.

Our first mutual love was knitting.  Hilda was a fantastic knitter.  She taught me to knit Fairisle.  Years later, when I really took to it, she was so proud of me.  She taught me to do so many things you cannot learn from You Tube or a book or a degree course.  I have been almost unable to knit since she died, which is terribly awkward as I have a busy schedule of workshops to deliver.  I also appreciate that I will have to pull myself together fast to a) be able to actually DO the workshops and b) avoid the wrath of Hilda if I don’t.  She would tell me in no uncertain terms that I must not be so silly, I can hear her saying it:  OK Ali, that’s fine, you’ve had your tears now let’s crack on.

When I applied for and, in an act of folly on their part, was appointed as a Rowan Design Consultant in the Cribbs Causeway John Lewis store, Hilda was absolutely, whole-heartedly and very generously even more thrilled than I was.  Unlike me, she was also confident that I could do it.  To make 100% sure of this, she often drove all the way up to sit at my table and be encouraging on my quiet shifts.  From then on, until the last time I saw her in hospital which was three days before she died, she has been at my side in all my knitting adventures.  Not always literally, but still, there.  She knitted for me, she knitted with me, she encouraged me when I was unsure or anxious (often!), and always added so much value, wisdom and common sense to my work.

She used to say to me:  Ali, you have the ideas, you’re the designer; I am the monkey!  But she wasn’t.  She had run her own hand-knitting business in the pre-Puriton days and I really do believe she did ‘Kaffe’ style designs before he could even knit.  What she loved – and I loved about her – was that she never stopped wanting to learn.  If she taught me, then I also taught her.  Not as much but she really embraced skills such as felting, knitting with beads, Kidsilk Haze – she loved it! Moebiuses, steeking – wherever my adventures took me, she came too.

One things I used to do was ‘use’ Hilda as a guinea pig ‘class’ when I had a new, tricky workshop to teach.  I never went ‘live’ without a practice on Hilda.  Now I feel like I am flying solo for the first time.  Where is my safety net?  Who will I tell funny stories to when I make a hash up of something simple?

In the last few days in hospital in Taunton, she was visited by all her closest friends, mostly from the world of patch work which was really her domain.  She was brilliant at it, ran several groups over the years and donated literally thousands of hours of her generous time to teaching and encouraging and organising at so many levels.  Her group in the village was her pride and joy.  As bereft as I feel, so they must feel terrible too.  They have lost their group leader, a force to be reckoned with – and they loved her.

At her funeral – which was packed – the group hung some of her quilts in the church, in the porch and in the Church Hall.  The Order of Service was literally covered in quilting too – it was so adorable, utterly bonkers and very, very Hilda.  Look!  Also, a quilted cross.  She would have loved to see this. hilda-2

hilda-3

This is not to say that we didn’t have our ups and downs.  Unlike someone who is a ‘friend’, we could and did sometimes fall out, squabble – as you do with your family, because you can. At times, she drove me nuts.  For example somehow Hilda always seemed to pop in on the day I had my hair done – and she really didn’t like my purple, blue or pink phases!  Never afraid to share an opinion, even if it was not invited, I frequently heard:  Oh Ali!  that really does not suit you!  Thanks.  Or:  you will wear yourself out with running and the damn gym, well don’t ask ME to push you round in a wheelchair!  Or:  Don’t go caving.  Or if you MUST go, don’t tell me!  You will kill yourself and then what will you do with All That Wool?

We managed, twice, to fall out over the Village Flower and Craft Show.  Impressive.  God knows how, except that Hilda loved it and I hated it.  Not the show itself, but entering it, which she forced me to do on three occasions.  The trouble with you, Ali, is that you are not a joiner.  You need to join in more! Oy, OK.

She comforted me when I was upset and told me to pull myself together many times.  One creature who I think loved Hilda more than any other non-human is Rupert.  He adored Hilda from the day she met him when he was eight weeks old.  I  went and ruined it a bit when I also got Arthur but Hilda and Pete had Rupert with them so often.  Once he went on holiday with them in the caravan and he loved it.  When his spine went and he had all those operations, Hilda made him a patchwork sling to help him learn to walk and knitted him a hand-made, felted sleeping bag which he still uses every day and every night.  He simply loved her.

Now, I have part-fostering care of Hilda’s dog, Toby.  He is only one year old.  He is staying with Peter but has been spending a lot of time here, especially after Hilda was admitted to Musgrove and then again after her death.  Poor Toby.  But he has settled down here and also at home with just Pete and I walk him too.  Rupert is not his biggest fan but we have attained peace and I aspire to friendship.  Looking after Toby seems like the very least I can do for my old friend.

What Hilda enjoyed about the tea-time workshop visits was seeing all the participants, hearing about their knitting – and their sewing – and putting on on of her best hand-knits and sitting with us in the busy, end-of-workshop atmosphere; and then staying on for an hour after everyone had gone home to gossip about her week and tell me to stop knitting in grey all the while, for pity’s sake, Ali.

The door would open, in she came, I’d sit her down and get the tea and cake.  It was just part of my life.  It signaled the close of the day and it made me really happy just to see her, even if I was usually running about with a knife and ball of wool.  I actually do not think I can bear it, that she will never do that again – and I am as mad as a badger because I booked her in at tea time for both my October workshops and the Christmas ones.  And if she could be there, I know she would, because she never let me down.

Yesterday was the first workshop since her death.  She was due to have tea with us, as always and at 3.30 ish I just could not help looking at the door. But I did not cry or feel like I would because it was busy and also a lovely, happy day which Hilda would have loved. We did steeking.  She had knitted two Scandi-style cardigans and steeked them some years ago, but I still practiced my teaching on Hilda in the summer, showed her how I do it, with crochet (she did not approve, as she did hers with a sewing machine, but she did it anyway).  That was the last time.  If anyone wants to volunteer to be a guinea pig student in the future, just say…or I might just not bother.

The last time I saw her, in hospital, she had some fairly specific instructions for me to carry out.  Amongst these, I was to eat cake at tea time after workshops.  And use some of her stash to knit a jumper or cardigan in many coloured stripes, each one of which must be bordered with a single line of black knitting.  Well, of course I promised so now I am faced with that task.  I never wear stripes! I never wear colourful cardigans.  She has set me a challenge, as ever. I was due to see her again two days later but she was too ill by then and the next day she died.  The effort I must now make is to not remember her as she was that day, but as she was on some of our adventures together, in the years before her mercifully brief illness.

We have permission for her ashes to be buried in the village church yard, by the Church Rooms where every Tuesday she held court at her Patchwork/Quilting club. Very fitting.

So, Hilda, the question is (I am, as you know, ever selfish) what the HELL am I supposed to do now?  And thank you, for being such a faithful friend to me – and more. Goodnight, God bless, see you in the morning.