Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Of Stone Houses And The Solstice

Sunday was fun. Richard was working so I went with him, well muffled up against the cold snap which is currently sweeping across Ireland. Usually Sundays mean one football match after another, but on this particular day festivities had definitely taken over. We did one set of sopranos in the park, and then not just one but two pantomimes and two castles! After that we required coffee and mince pies to thaw out!

The Three Irish Sopranos, Cara, Mary and Majella, are all in fact from Cork, all have successful international operatic careers, and are now for the first time all coming together in one big New Year gala concert here. Richard photographed them in Fitzgerald's Park, a nice green place in the city where a huge exhibition was held in 1902 and which thereafter became a public park.

Then it was down to Blackrock Castle which has stood guarding the river Lee and the approaches to the city for centuries. There was a Christmas Market on in the courtyard here. I love Blackrock Castle - back twenty or thirty years ago the car ferry from the UK would come right upriver past the castle and you would wake in your cabin to look out the porthole and see the little white castle welcoming you home. Now the ferries are far too big to come this far, and moor down at Ringaskiddy further out in the harbour.

On to the Opera House and a matinee of Cinderella. Here is the wicked stepmother in mid-aria with the two Ugly Sisters. For American readers unfamiliar with the genre, it is traditional for these roles to be played by men, while the male lead was formerly played by a glamorous girl with long legs, but these days is more likely to be a hunky young male (shame!).

From there we headed to the Firkin Crane, one of Cork's most historic buildings, set on a height above the city at Shandon (sean dun, the old fort). The Firkin Crane was in fact part of Cork's legendary Butter Market, where the weighing and grading was done before sending our butter far and wide across the world (that's why you'll find it rather salty when you taste it - it had to be, to survive the trip!)

Here they were rehearsing hard for The Grinch, and while Richard ran around grouping Tiny Tots and dancers and elves for pictures, I got on with some urgent festive knitting.

The final stop was at Blarney Castle - yes, that one with the stone you have to hang upside down to kiss in order to get the gift of the gab (no, I didn't need to, because I was born within an ass's roar of the castle, but yes, unfortunately I did, more than once, which possibly explains a lot).

There was another market going on here, although those of you who habitually get two feet of snow may find the green a little conflicting with your ideas of Christmas markets. It was fun, though.

Someone asked if I wasn't knitting on the Lapland trip. Of course I was, but forgot to mention it in the delight of re-living with you the magic of Finland's Far North. I had decided on the special indulgence of a NEW PROJECT to go with the already splendid treat of the trip and cast on for - a Faroese shawl. Not one of the more complicated ones, but the nice little blue one from The Best of Knitter's Shawls and Scarves. You know, the one that you wrap around your shoulders, cross, and tie at the back for draught exclusion and snug comfort. That seemed like a sensible thing to knit, and something I would use quite a lot, as opposed to the heirloom-status patterns. Using that soft blue mousse yarn that went into the Gazebo Lace cardigan, only single stranded this time. It's going well if slowly, which is why you aren't seeing pictures yet - casting on 391 stitches is a little daunting! Having done a band of garter stitch, am now ready to start the lace border but think it would be advisable to shake another box or two of stitch markers over the work, to ensure places are not lost when several decreases are combined with a 27 st pattern repeat... More on that later.

A couple of treats have arrived by post. Firstly, my Winter IK is here at LAST! I've been watching for it since mid-November and eventually sent a plaintive email to IK querying its whereabouts (along with Interweave Crochet which hadn't arrived either). Fair dues to them, they sent out a replacement and I am now savouring every page as slowly as possible to make it last longer. More on that later too. And Interweave Crochet might be a New Year treat.

Secondly, something I've been quietly excited about for ages also arrived. Take a deep breath. Clutch the arms of your chair (oh all right, you can keep one hand for the keyboard or mouse, stop being pedantic). Shut your eyes for a moment. Ready? OK - now!

Stop that! Stop it this INSTANT! Really! Whatever happened to the Christmas spirit, the feeling of goodwill and generosity to all? Look, I got them at (for Starmore) reasonable prices, and the dollar/Euro exchange rate didn't hurt either. With the greatest restraint known to Celtic Memory, they have now been wrapped gently in tissue paper, tied with ribbon, and put to wait until Christmas morning. I hope my strength of character proves equal to the challenge.

I wouldn't have got these at ALL if it hadn't been for the generosity and helpfulness of my very dear friend, Angeluna, who not only took delivery of them in the States (neither vendor would post to Ireland - where is that for heaven's sake?) but also repackaged them and posted them on to me. And as if that were not enough, look what got tucked in with the books!

This divine, good-enough-to-eat skein in truffly chocolate and dark black coffee shades, is Brooks Farm, wool/silk, and currently sitting right by my pillow where I can reach out and stroke it in the night. What socks can do justice to this? Answers by email please. Angeluna, I know the amount of distress and pain you are going through at the moment with your son's illness; and your courage in posting about it and sharing with your many friends is remarkable. We're all with you, sweetheart.

I really didn't expect those shawl kits to sell so quickly! Within the blink of an eye, every single one was gone. And yes, for those of you who have been enquiring, I think some more may be on offer in the New Year. Will need to make up some more bags, and this time, given the extent of the Celtic Memory fabric stash, I think they will be proper little knitting totes. Something to have fun with in the spring.

It's nice to have new projects to look forward to, although at times the sheer number of exciting options can be a bit daunting. Lene, I know absolutely what you meant when you said you wanted to try different things, not just knitting. I suspect there are many more out there who find it difficult, if not impossible, to give enough attention to all the hobbies and crafts they would like to try. I'm certainly going to be spreading my energy around several projects in the New Year. If not now, when? On my deathbed?

It was Lene's mention of dolls' houses that really got me going, though. I've always loved these, and seeing the pictures she put up sparked a notion that had lain dormant for ages.

On various trips to France, we particularly enjoy visiting the less well known Massif Central and particularly a starkly beautiful plateau called the Causse Mejean. Life up here is harsh and demanding, dry and hot in summer and freezingly bitter in winter, and the houses reflect that world.

This lovely watercolour gets it pretty accurately. Everywhere you find that marvellous local architecture with sloping roofs, arched doorways to allow loaded carts to go into a barn, steps up to houses to keep the livestock out, and always the stones, the endless stones of the plateau, free and endless if pitiless building material.

There is a wonderful old farmstead up there, Hyelzas, which has been turned into a museum of Caussenard rural life, with all the everyday things of a hundred years ago - spinning wheels and wooden cradles, hay rakes, box beds built into the wall - and not laid out in neat warm museum style but the real house, with the wind whistling through on cold days (it was pretty draughty when I was there, and it really made me realise how harsh life could be up on the Causse in winter).

A particularly marvellous aire or motorway service station can be found at Lozere, not far away from the steep twisting road up to the Causse, and here, as well as divine handmade baskets, sheep's fleeces, Causse cheese, you can find miniature versions of the Causse houses, built in tiny stones. I bought several over the years, and now bring them out at Christmas, and put tiny figures into them to bring them to life.

Here they are, waiting to emerge into the limelight again.

Now: The Grand Project is to recreate one of those large French farmsteads in the style of the Causse Mejean, with living space, lofts, barns for the animals, hay bales, spinning wheels, chairs, tables, cupboards, everything that was needed for daily life. Fortunately I got a video tape at Hyelzas, dealing with the tasks of the different seasons, both indoors and out, and that will help. Can you imagine, a whole miniature world? I can't wait to weave tiny blankets and crochet braided rugs, and carve little stools and chairs. Think of the curtains, and the linen! How does one make tiny pots and pans? The challenge of the lit clos or box bed is one I can't wait to try.

The one guiding principle is that everything possible must be made or sourced from the clutter already filling every available space in the Celtic Memory homestead. No pre-packed kits, no prettily-painted sets of doll house furniture. No cheating. There should be enough scraps and bits and wires and string and (heaven knows) yarn and cloth already on hand here to supply a whole village of Caussenard houses. This is NOT, repeat NOT going to be a tempting excuse to go on another series of shopping sprees (really!)

However, an exception was made for the basic structure. Looked around for a bookcase or orange boxes or anything that might reduce the preliminary cutting and screwing work, but then, wandering through the local DIY store (look, I was there for something ELSE, it had nothing to do with The Grand Project, honestly), I found these marvellous wood cubes, sold in pairs, for hanging on your wall as instant display units. Already made up, and cheaper than anything I could make myself, I bought a larger and a smaller pair.

Here they are, notionally stacked. It's great because you can pull them around and try different ways of placing them. This is how the Caussenard house would work, the main part on the left and the smaller, lean-to livestock section to the right.

Aha, someone said just then, you'll have problems if you want to put in staircases or ladders, won't you? Two thicknesses of wood to go through. Yes, thought of that, and it will mean a bit more work (because you have to have staircases and ladders, they're half the fun, aren't they?), but LISTEN, the separate cube system means something ELSE could be worked in as well...

Look, see here? I've made a gap between the two floors. Just a small one, to give you the idea. That could be a fun roof space with a few tiny mice and cobwebs, but - BUT - it could also be -

a secret room.

Now this is something I'd read of a long time ago in some exciting children's story and subsequently checked up on. Old English houses, the Georgian kind with tall ceilings, might on occasion have an entirely unsuspected secret room. This was made by putting a false roof in one of the high-ceilinged rooms, which then gave you a space between that and the floor above. The tall windows were discreetly adjusted and covered at the top so that it was not evident on the lower floor that some of their height had been cut off; on the floor above, all was as it should be - but in between you had a low-ceilinged and secret room, usually accessed from within a hollow wall. It was handy if you were fighting on the wrong side in a war, or used the wrong Bible in religious disagreements. It might also have been handy for someone to simply get away from the family at Christmas, who knows. But I foresee a lot of fun ahead! Isn't it amazing what a few wooden cubes from the DIY store can turn into?

Now - it's almost Midwinter and I have some delightful news for you. In fact, like Lene's lovely present of instructions on how to make a felted heart on her current blog, here is my present to you. You may already know of the ancient site of Newgrange here in Ireland, where each midwinter solstice the rising sun pierces through an aperture and creeps along a passageway to the central chamber. Well, for the very first time ever, it's not just going to be the lucky few VIPs who are invited in each year - you can experience it on your own computer at home! It's going to be between 8.30 am and 10 am Irish time next Friday and Saturday and you can check it out right now on:

I can't imagine a better use of modern technology, can you? Mind you, I can't guarantee the sun - it could well be a misty cloudy morning with no sign of the lad himself at all - but we will be able to be there, together, you and I. Go check it and bookmark it and then set your alarm clocks!


Barbara-Kay said...

You live a fascinating life, my friend. I've learned so much from your posts this year. May God smile on you and yours, and may all have a Merry Christmas.

pacalaga said...

It all sounds so wonderful. Don't tell me you're going to become one of those women who knits at 80 st/in and weaves cobweb-weight linen and crochets lace edging on the miniscule curtains...

Anonymous said...

I have to admit to a momentary twinge of envy over those books (whimper). What a good friend Angeluna is that she actually sent them on to you, and threw in some lovely yarn as well! It will be such fun to see your "building project" come along - that Lene is truly an inspiration. Wishing you the most magical of holidays!

Anonymous said...

Brooks Farm yarn is lovely. I just finished Cheryl Oberle's Irish Shawl in the wonderful wool-mohair blend - really just a strand of each loosely spun around each other.

Here's the shawl in all its blocking glory:

Love your blog!

cindyl said...

Oh, my gosh, I'm over the moon about the solstice sun on the Newgrange site. Winter solstice is my favorite day of the year. thanks for the heads up. And never again make fun of our Texas sayings. "within the sound of an ass's roar?" Too perfect. I'm going to steal that one and use it, although here an ass is more likely to be human than not.
Merry Christmas!

Angeluna said...

How perfectly jolly Ireland is in this season. Now what does one buy in a Christmas market? And what wonderful traditional things are there to eat?

Ah, the Massif Central! I visited several times when I lived there. It is harsh indeed, and the houses seem to grow organically from the rocky outcrops. The French who live there are sturdy folk who don't talk much. Now I'm quite worried that you will get lost in your miniatures. What about knitting some lovely Starmore challenge. After all, we must banish the curse.

Julia is so right, it was quite difficult to pack those beautiful Starmore books and send them on. I did get a good peak though and I've no idea how you can resist opening them for a week.

A friend of mine came by tonight (Taya whom you met), and she is knitting a pair of Acero socks in a similar color using the "Back to the Basics Sock" pattern from Knitty. The pattern is very interesting, new toe, new heel and gusset shaping, lovely v-shaped throat on the arch where the ribbing for the leg starts. The yarn knits up with thin subtle stripes and much thicker than I thought. They were quite wonderful. They would be a sober sock for a woman or a very classy sock for a man.

The Gadabout Knitter said...

Oh! My husband and I visited the Blarney Castle on our honeymoon! Such grand memories! :) I can't wait to see how your little house turns out! Oh what fun you will have finding little treasures to put in it!

Unknown said...

Wow, I wish I were there!

I have the same problem with books from America and certain exchange I will not buy their needles. (3 guesses!) do ship internationally.

I shall tune in tomorrow for the solstice! Thank you for the link.

Anonymous said...

Solstice at Newgrange? Oh wonder! Oh joy! Thank you so much for the link, Jo! Oh my, I have got to have a candle lit during that...

And all the rest - good grief, I'd write a comment the size of the post if I mentioned everything I wanted to. ;) But to boil it down...fantastic as usual, wonderful photos; the green Christmas looks like home (I expect apt. maintenance will be mowing the lawn again here in the next few weeks [g]); I got some Brooks Farm wool/silk in a swap earlier this month, isn't it delicious?; and your Grand Project sounds too tempting for words. (Although I will add these words: pots and pans? Think metal bottle caps. And igolochkoy - Russian punchneedle - if the Causse folk made hooked rugs.)

May you and Richard and the girls have a lovely Christmas and Winter Solstice!

Anonymous said...

Oh, if anyone needs a time converter for the Newgrange webcast? Go here:

This page will convert Irish time to your local. (Oregon's 8 hours behind, as it turns out. [g] So I'll be awake at midnight tonight, ready and waiting for 12:30 am...)

Desperate Housewife said...

Oh, I want to visit Ireland at Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the link to the solstice. My father's family came to the States from Ireland in the late 1800's. I felt a kinship with my ancestors as I watched the solstice sunrise at Newgrange this morning (3:30 AM here in Florida.)I tried to imagine them 5000 years ago greeting the return of the sun. Once again, thank you.

Anonymous said...

I've just read your post (a very busy week here), so missed the direct broadcast from Newgrange, but have just watched it in the archive. I hadn't heard of Newgrange, so it was a fascinating journey for me. Thank you so much for the introduction, as it was my wedding anniversary yesterday too. I think we have the summer solstice here today (22nd). A big day all round.

Love the idea of recreating the house too. I'll be watching your progress avidly. And the books. Hmmm.

I wish you both a happy solstice, a wonderful Christmas and the most enjoyable times together. Thank you for sharing.


Jocerane said...

Thank you SO much for the link to the video!!!!!
Massif central is a beautiful place, where earth and stones have a lot to say. I love your little houses, and your idea is a great project! I'm also a lover of doll's houses, and "miniatures". The book from Elisabeth Goudge I'm actually reading talks about "little things", and in facts, they were true "little things" coming from her great gran mother who lived in Guersey. (Going to Guersey is one of my dream!). Happy winter soltice!!!!!

Dez Crawford said...

Jo, I cannot thank you enough for the link to the Solstice webcast. Still yet to be marked off on my Life List is: "See the Winter Solstice live and in person at Stonehenge, Glastonbury, or Newgrange." Beautiful and wondrous. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the webcast -- next best thing to being there.

I love the miniature stone house. The long sloping, roof reminds me of the livestock sheds you see adjacent to very old Cajun houses.

And secret rooms! When I was about twelve years old I had a favorite book called "The Secret Room," about a girl in the Great Depression who discovers a secret room full of books in the turret of an old, abandoned house. And when I was in high school, a girl I knew had a secret room in her house. The kids had filled it with pillows and blankets, and used it as a hideaway. It was accessed through a sliding panel in a hall closet, and had one small window.

MMMmm, salty butter!

P.S. Kiss the Blarney stone is also on my Life List. As if I need to! :-)

Anonymous said...

My husband and I visited Newgrange about 20 years ago (in the summer) and wished so much we could be there at winter solstice. What a wonderful treat to watch it happen - thank you!!!