Friday, June 27, 2008

Oh Horror, Oh Woe, Oh Grief! Some Of My Stash Is Missing!

I'd better warn the faint of heart right from the beginning that the end of this blog is truly terrifying. Cocooned in your sheltered safe little knitting world, you may not know that there are threats and risks out there which could endanger the very heart of your home - that is, your closely-guarded and treasured stash. Free-floating, entirely random threats which could strike at any moment, when you least expect it. For you, gentle ones, read on if you will, but only to the 'BUT'. For the serenity of your own minds, I don't recommend that you discover the fate of my beloved yarns and projects. It's better you don't know.

The more hardened among you, of course, can take it on the chin, and may even be able to rally round with words of comfort and good advice. Experience may, perhaps, be able to soften the crushing blow under which Celtic Memory currently lies writhing in mental agony. Perhaps.

But the happier portion first. Lots to tell you about of gift packages received from lovely friends, new ideas tried out, projects progressing. They, however, will have to wait for the next posting. You know how it is, when one major idea is possessing your mind, heart, soul, that's what you have to write about, or die in the attempt. So here goes with the Tale of the Trip To Northernmost Europe.

DH had long yearned to visit the natural home of the white-tailed sea-eagle. Well you do, don't you. Recently Ireland has been experimenting with their re-introduction here (they feature in our ancient poems and literature and we know jolly well they used to inhabit our sea cliffs and mountains, but they died out over the centuries). We have one or two pairs gifted from Norway who are currently trying to adjust to the Kerry climate and learn the language. But in the meantime, DH thought it would be wonderful to see them in their normal habitat. Which is the fjords and northern coastline of Norway. Very far north. We had to fly (by degrees) to Ivalo, the northernmost airport in Finland, and then drive on, on, on, over the border into Norway and up to the remote region of Varangerfjord, where you can peek at Russia just across the narrow strait of the Barent Sea.

Do you know what the most wonderful thing is about blogging and Ravelry? It's arriving in a strange northern town in the freezing wind and rain late in the afternoon and finding a friend running towards you with open arms for a warm hug.

Magaki had come to welcome us to her home town of Vadsoe. We'd been messaging briefly since I had known about the northern trip, and one text on arrival brought her right out to show me where the yarn shops were! Howzabout that for Ravelry comradeship?

I think I like Norway a lot. A small town like Vadsoe boasts not just one but two superb yarn shops. You can probably see pictures of one of them at least on Magaki's blog, since she goes to SnB there every week. Oh the yarns! Tons of gorgeous Norwegian labels, and also - and ALSO - some rare finds in the shape of Estonian hand-dyed laceweight (steady there at the back, no heart-attacks), and sockweight or worsted, I'm not sure which (you'll find out why later). Had a wonderful time. DH in the meantime was having the time of his life around the harbour, photographing eider duck with all their little furballs, rising and falling on the icy waves.

Eider very sensibly care for their offspring in creches, some parents going off to feed while others guard the little ones from predatory gulls and skuas.

Varangerfjord is a world all its own, a world of dramatic indented coastlines and craggy cliffs, tiny battered fishing villages and wild limitless skies. Often you can see echoes of a busier past, of whaling, fishing, people who lived and worked and survived in this demanding climate all year round not just on summer weekends.

There are echoes of far earlier times too: this area has been inhabited for thousands of years, and each millennium has left its records, even if we haven't learned to read them correctly as yet.

This is Ekkeroy, on a day when the clouds cleared and the sun made everything sparkle. It's so remote up there, so far away from cities and crowds and hurry and bustle and industry that you feel calmer just for breathing that tangy sea air. That just might be the Russian coastline across the bay but probably not - I think you have to be up high on a really really clear day to see it.

And this is one of my new favourite places in the whole world, Hamningberg, right at the end of the road. The end of Northern Europe. No more roads beyond this. The narrow track stops here. And it's only open May or June to September, when the snow has melted sufficiently. In winter, forget it. Those little windswept houses hunkering down there have sod roofs to aid with insulation, and weathered grey clapboard sides. The wind was so cold up here it took your breath away. Thought I'd planned ahead with silk thermals but this nor-easter just chuckled and went right through me, not bothering to turn aside for something as pathetic as Irish skin and bone.

Fortunately there was a cafe. A lovely snug little cafe, warm with the scent of fresh baking. Lovely practical people the Norwegians. I could work on my red Koigu socks while waiting for the apple pie to come out of the oven. They had little vases of herbs on the counter rather than flowers (most of those weren't out yet, come on, it's only late June after all), among which I saw nettles and another called (I think) sea cabbage, both of which are, I was told, excellent herbs. I knew about nettles of course, but not the sea cabbage. Never saw nettles as a display before, but how nice they looked.

Reindeer were everywhere, whether individuals crossing the road

herds wandering the seashore or sunning themselves on the shoreline (very strange to see reindeer by the sea, somehow)

or mothers and babies crossing the snowy slopes of the mountains.

How about the knitting, you ask? Well of course there was knitting. Knitting with warm wool really REALLY comes into its own in these chilly places. Suddenly I could see the need for thick cabled sweaters, hats, luxuriously long scarves. But, since I have joined Summer of Socks, socks it was.

Socks were knitted by raging torrents, fed by melting snow -

on weatherbeaten wharves by old warehouses -

and perhaps best of all, on the old straight track, probably the original route out along this fjord, which runs close to the main road. Wandering here on a sunny morning, warm enough to shed one layer of jackets (but not quite balmy enough to doff the woolly hat), with the scent of new heather and the song of newly-arrived birds all around was one of those moments in time that stay with you forever. You know the kind, when for that little while absolutely every worry disappears and you are completely happy just to be there.

All good things come to an end and we had to turn for home. One more quick meeting with Magaki in Vadsoe where she and her DH brought a picnic basket and gave us wonderful coffee and utterly delectable cake out on the headland from where many Polar expeditions set off.

Here we are performing the ritual comparison of socks - mine on the left are a fairly pedestrian pair of cabled in Claudia's Handpaint, and Magaki's on the right are a beautiful pair of Dominos - you can see them on her blog.

On our way south, a brief stop at Tana Bru gave the chance for a happy meeting with Aurora, another lovely Norwegian blogger and Raveler, who lives up at Batsfjord, a good drive from Tana Bru, but she took the trouble to come and meet me.

Here we are comparing socks -she's working on the current pattern from Six Sox Knitalong (hey, I'm in that too, better get going) in dramatic black and white, while I am showing her DH's grey socks in progress. And she even brought me a big ball of Norwegian sock wool too, in a lovely dark blue. How nice was that? AND she and her DH bought us coffee. What a warm generous people they are up in this part of the world.

BUT (and here is the point where the faint of heart should quit reading and return to their knitting - sometimes innocence is the best protection), the tale does not end happily. Or at least (trying to force an optimism I don't feel) it hasn't yet. We drove the long road back to Ivalo. We packed, emptied the car. We took the flight next morning (to the tiny airport of Kittila, to the big HUGE airport of Helsinki, on to Amsterdam. Where we stood at the carousel and waited for one bright yellow hard-shell suitcase to arrive. Which it didn't. And where I stood in queue for an hour with many many other stressed travellers to report its loss. (Dear heaven there are times when you are very very grateful for at least one sock to knit on - the single grey on an inoffensive lightweight circular that could get through security. If I hadn't had that sock to knit on, there would have been a riot at Amsterdam and I'd be in a Dutch jail right now, where you probably don't even have Internet access.) And where we had, perforce, to board our flight for Cork later that night, minus said bright yellow suitcase.

WHICH HAD IN IT ALL MY TRIP STASH PLUS THREE IN-PROGRESS SOCKS. (DH can be heard faintly in the background here, pointing out that it also contained his much-loved tripod plus numerous electronic accessories dear to the heart of any professional photographer, but we'll ignore that as irrelevant. Oh it also contained clothes, but who cares about clothes when yarn is involved?) That exquisite handpainted Estonian laceweight. Those skeins of ditto ditto worsted or sockweight I can't remember which and I would be only too delighted to be able to lay my hands on them to TELL you. Just as bad, and maybe worse because it's more personal, two lovely red Koigu socks in progress and one grey Norwegian cabled sock in progress. All on Addi Turbo Laceweight circulars! (I think three exclamation marks would not be overdoing it here, but academic training dies hard.)

We came home. Cork Airport reassured us that the second the bag arrived they'd ring. 'Don't worry at all now, sure 'twill be here before ye've woken up tomorrow morning.'

Rang next morning. No bag. Rang Amsterdam. 'Yes, it has been sent.' Oh good. So why isn't it here then? A pregnant pause while they checked, and Celtic Memory's heart tried to slow down. 'Ah yes, I have the record here. It went to London Heathrow (WHERE? WHY, FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE?) and will come on to you with American Airlines. '

Oh-oh! That sounds pretty bad. For one thing, London Heathrow is the Black Hole of Calcutta where lost luggage is concerned. (If you don't believe me, check out the disaster they had on the opening of Terminal 5) And secondly, and rather more worryingly, just how do they imagine that American Airlines might be thinking of flying into Cork?

I mean - let's put it this way. Cork is an adorable airport. I love it to bits. It is the most welcoming, the most relaxed, the friendliest one I know. Everybody from passport-checker to marketing manager is a friend. It has a huge heart. But it doesn't exactly have a body to match. It's - do you say spatially challenged? Vertically challenged? Look, it's a TINY AIRPORT, right? You can see the full length of the runway in all its glory in the picture below (thanks Richard, that was short notice but you came up with the goods from your files, what a gem!)The thought of a transatlantic jumbo trying to fit itself onto the tarmac there is daft.

(Mind you there was one occasion when a transatlantic jumbo jet did just that. Land at Cork Airport, I mean. There was a crisis at Shannon, and it had to come to Cork. The runway was emptied, the emergency services were on full alert, and every viewing point was jammed with eager Corkonians who had heard about this on the radio and had come rushing up to see the once-in-a-lifetime event. The huge plane was heard in the distance. It approached. It made a gigantic and ponderous circle, presumably while the pilot looked down and said 'You mean there? You want me to land there? That's not a runway, that's a garden path for heaven's sake!' Then it began its approach. Tentatively, cautiously, as slowly as it could. It came lower and lower and at last touched down at the very first possible inch of tarmac. Rolling forward, you could hear every possible braking option being applied. One imagines the pilot was muttering, 'Get me out of this and so help me I'll never fly the Irish route again.' At last, heartstoppingly, it came to a standstill, one and three quarter inches from the end of the runway, a weed-choked rusty iron gate, and the inquiring eyes of Paddy Murphy's prize cow looking calmly into those of the pilot. A great day indeed, and one to remember.)

That digression was by way of demonstrating that Amsterdam might well have thought American Airlines could dump off my yellow suitcase en route to more exciting destinations, but it thought wrong. Oh heck! (That was not exactly the phrase used, but it will serve for the delicate ears of readers.)

That was on Tuesday. This is Friday. Somewhere out there, a forlorn yellow suitcase is waiting, wondering what has happened, why it isn't home telling of its adventures. Inside are (OK, OK, DH, your tripod and electronic bitsies, OK), that rare Estonian yarn, my poor socks, my Addi Turbos, and Aurora's gift yarn. Where, oh where is it? In the bowels of Heathrow, never to be seen again, like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of the Indiana Jones movie? Still in northern Finland? Gone boating on the canals in Amsterdam?

WHERE IS MY YARN? Don't they know what traumas like this can do? I WANT MY ESTONIAN YARN! I WANT MY ADDI TURBOS! I WANT MY SOCKS!

Oh yes. DH did get to see the sea eagles.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

An Ancient Citadel on May Day

You know, with all this rush of summertime and gardening, and birds nesting, and foxcubs coming out to play, and all the fun groups on Ravelry like Summer of Socks , I completely forgot to tell you about going up to the Cathair on the first day of May (after washing my face in the dew, of course). Omission hereby rectified. With pictures.

The Cathair is a very ancient site of worship indeed, situated in the hills on the Cork/Kerry border, with spectacular views all around (like old Weathertop, for those of you who are Lord of the Rings fans), but particularly sited so as to see clearly the Paps of Danu, two smoothly rounded mountains dedicated to the old Irish goddess of that name. In more recent times, predictably, Christianity took over the site and its magical spring of clear water became an official holy well, but the tradition of going up there to celebrate the coming of summer, and taking water from the spring is recorded in the earliest texts. In ancient times, they would light bonfires and drive their cattle through the smoke, later taking water from the spring to anoint stables, byres and other places that their animals abode, to keep out evil spirits that might bring disease. Then there would be feasting and merrymaking throughout the night.

Rather reassuringly, there is no direct route there. You drive down across the Cork/Kerry border to Glenflesk, and then turn off into side lanes, following the route of the old railway which once ran to Kenmare (and they do say you can still hear the whistle of that selfsame train on moonless October nights, following the old tracks which no longer exist, down through Loo Bridge to Kenmare). Then you reach another road, turn again, and finally find yourself on this nice narrow winding lane, heading deep into the hills.

I went up there with my photographer friend Valerie. She's a Kerry girl and well used to hopping out and guiding cars past each other on the lane. Here she is advising on the hard ground and the more dodgy soft ground on the verge. All rather peaceful and relaxed, and well removed from the usual traffic jams and gridlock of motorways or city traffic.

It's a strange place, the Cathair (the name means simply 'City' or 'gathering place'), if you're used to organised historic sites with tidy surroundings and notice boards.

At the top of the lane, you find this old grey stone wall surrounding an open grassy area with only the uneven bumps suggesting that an archaeological team could have a whale of a time here. You can see a statue of the Virgin Mary carefully placed on the wall to the right over there, to remind worshippers of the established religion rather than the unapproved, far older one, and just in front of it, a large grey rock.

Over the centuries, in times of population pressure, people have even built houses right up against the stone ramparts. These houses are now fallen into ruin, but somehow they add to the atmosphere of this high windy place.

It was late afternoon when we arrived, but there were still people here, making their way to the spring with their bottles. Every country Irish household has its bottle of holy water from one well or another, so I assumed that was what they were collecting here too. In fact, as you will see later on, that wasn't quite the case.

Others were praying quietly.

Look at these stones, piled by the statue. Some are fairly new, others are very old indeed. You wonder when those crosses were first incised, and if there is another symbol underneath, deliberately blurred by the strong lines of the cross.

It's when you stand right by those carved stones, and turn your back to them, facing east, that you realise the full significance of the siting of the Cathair and its huge central stone.

The Paps of Danu, due east from the great grey rock. Can you imagine that at sunrise on May Day? I really must go up there again and get a picture for you at dawn. Established modern religions somehow fade into the background when you're faced with something as ancient and powerful as this.

It was quite difficult to leave that place, but evening was drawing on; a blackbird was singing sweetly, its voice echoing and re-echoing across from rampart to rampart, but the midges were out in force as well which is always a sign to get on the road home.

One last look out over the sweeping view from the Cathair, and we said goodbye to the ancient stones and the place of worship.

A last lovely touch: after Valerie and I went our separate ways, she back into Kerry, me headed for Cork, I stopped off at my favourite cafe, the Cruiscin Lan in Ballyvourney, for a restorative coffee. Of course I told them I'd been up to the Cathair and talked about the nice people I'd met there, getting their supply of holy water from the spring.

'Oh but that's not for themselves,' said the waitress immediately. 'That's for their cattle. It always has been. You get the water up at the Cathair on May Dayto bring health to the cattle . That's the way of it.'

It was a very good feeling indeed to have confirmed, by a waitress in a cafe on the busy Cork-Killarney road, that the old ways and the old beliefs are as strong as ever they were.

Been dyeing up yarns again: this time, perhaps inspired by thoughts of Weathertop and Lord of the Rings up there on the Cathair (and also by a divine new sock pattern, Rivendell, from the just-published collection The Eclectic Sole), I created them in Tolkien mode this time: The Rivendell Yarns.

Here they are, drying under the trees. Yes, the blackbirds and the mistle thrushes have fledged and left the nest, and here's a picture of a young mistle thrush on his very first flight to prove it -

Moments before I took this picture he had finally launched himself from the edge of the nest and flapped wildly across the garden to the safety of a tree. Big moment in his young life.

However, as I was saying, those two families had gone, but in the meantime, a bullfinch had taken up residence in the hedge, and now has six tiny babies. OK, hold the washing line for another two weeks!

Actually I'm getting rather fond of colourful skeins swinging in the breeze up and down the driveway. It has a good feeling.

Here are the Rivendell yarns close up: from bottom left, working clockwise: Arwen Evenstar, Tom Bombadil, Dawn in Elfland, Rivendell, and Lothlorien. Quite surprisingly, the ones I listed as Buy It Now on eBay sold instantly; the bidding ones are listed until tomorrow I think. Then I must get going on dyeing up some new sock yarn blends which have just arrived: a gorgeously soft alpaca/silk, and a merino/bamboo. Lots of fun ahead!