Sunday, September 27, 2015

In Which A Boggy Mountainside Is Survived and A Glorious Old World Orchard Is Visited

I was having the divil's own luck with that Druid's Stocking I mentioned last time.  The infinitesimally tiny needles and the fine yarn, though undeniably a beautiful green, made for a dreadfully harsh fabric, not to mention the havoc they were playing with my fingers and thumb joints.  Eventually I got sense and went up a few sizes in needle and called upon the aid of a lovely warm soft pale grey yarn that I'd used before.  Instant happiness!

Here are the new and the old, which I fitted round a pair of boots by the crabapple tree.  You probably can't see the lovely patterning on the pale grey but it's there, believe me.  This is just the cuff so far, and then that gets turned down and you start on the leg of the stocking.  Which has its own delightfully complex cabling.  Meggie really is a brilliant knit designer.

And, the birthday of a very small young friend coming up soon, I whipped up this little bag last night.

It's the Toy Tote Bag by Sherry Etheridge and is just big enough to take some tiny gifts and sweets.  Then it can be used later on for special treasures and slung over a small shoulder.  A really speedy crochet project for suddenly-needed gifts - you could put anything inside it from pretty soaps and flannels to indulgent chocolate treats.

We decided the other day that it really was high time to go and get good pictures of a particular stone circle down at Kealkil on the back road to Bantry.  Getting there wasn't too much of a problem (as long as you can cope with climbing steep sinuous boreens about the width of a loaf of bread and never knowing if you'll meet a tractor or hay wagon coming the other way at full speed, and, having lived here a fairly long time, we can) but actually reaching the monument itself posed more of a challenge.  There was a stiff iron gate standing stern amid a positive sea of mud and manure.  As if that were not enough, somebody had spilled black sticky oil all around the opening side.  Which meant the dog had to be carried, as I wasn't prepared to deal with black sticky oily paws for the rest of the day and night.  We crossed one field, and then had to tackle the next obstacle - a steep ladder, again emerging from the depths of a quagmire, up to a bramble-bedecked bank, and another ladder down the other side.  Dog had to be lifted again.  This was Petroushka, by the way, who, though still a puppy, weighs twice as much as the other two and then some.

And then, having gained the final stretch,  the entire field itself turned out to be a bog, with quaking tussocks of grass standing up in deep pools of inky water.  How you can get a bogland on top of a hill, where you would think every drop would have drained off, beats me, but there is one here, take my word for it.   Crossing it was no fun at all.  You would probably have come down to solid rock after you'd sunk to your ankles, but it still wasn't the kind of afternoon stroll you would have chosen.

Eventually, though, we got to the stone circle and it was worth it.  The circle itself is small, but there are two superb tall standing stones outside it, as well as a ruined cairn.

You can get an idea of the height of the tallest stone in this picture - I'm about 5'7" so I would say it was twice that.  Bantry Bay is in the background, and the Kerry mountains beyond that.

Most of our clothes required special cleaning when we got home (to say nothing of Petroushka) but it was worth it.  Beautiful monument.  If only one hadn't got the distinct feeling that somebody didn't want us there and had taken steps to discourage visitors.

Now it's the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness as you all know (unless of course you live in the southern hemisphere, in which case you're starting to enjoy spring) and here that means apples.  Our own crabapples (seen above with the Druids Stockings) aren't ready to pick yet, but we knew of a wonderful orchard on the east side of Cork and made our way there when we judged the time to be right.

This is 16thc Barryscourt Castle where Heritage Ireland is doing a tremendous job of restoring not only the structure but the surrounding gardens too.  To this end, they planted an orchard with as many of the old Irish apple trees as they could find. Isn't that a lovely thing to do?

How could you resist apples with beautiful names like Offaly Lady's Fingers or Irish Peach?  Kerry Pippin or Crofton Scarlet?

I just had to get a closer look at this Ardcairn Russet...

And they very very kindly let us take away some of the windfalls.  I have evolved a great method of making apple butter, using the slow-cooker (crockpot to you New Worlders), and have already got the first couple of pots filled and labelled.

May your own autumn be full of fine foraging and happy preparations for filling the pantry shelves before winter.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Of Amiable Relationships and Autumn Wanderings

The amiable relationships are those which commonly obtain 'twixt the felines and the canines chez Celtic Memory.  Paudge Mogeely, as you may recall, is the most placid of good chaps, very fond of a cozy corner in which to sleep, be it out in the garden just where the sun is striking brightest, or by the fireside in the evening.  Off the ground of course, that's always a given for cats, and if there is a warm dog in situ beforehand, to take the chill off the cushions, that's even better.

Here is Paudge curled up peacefully with Tamzin.  Those two love each other;  Tamzin's rolling eye is caused by the proximity of DH's camera.  She doesn't like these new-fangled things, especially with a flash.  'Just go away and let us BE, will you?'  Paudge couldn't be bothered.  Paparazzi, shaparazzi, no worries.

He will curl up with Petroushka too, although 'Troushka, still being young and enthusiastic, is inclined to give it a maximum five minutes and then start a game.

Or a washing session.  'C'mon, you know you like your face licked, Paudge.  You know you do!'

Polliwog,on the other hand, though extremely friendly to all the dogs, always willing to rub up against them and administer head butts, draws the line at face washing.  Here she is ready to strike, while 'Troushka, abandoning her original plan, hastily jumps back, ears flying with the haste of her retreat.

But 'Troushka knows how to get her revenge.  Wait until Polliwog is peacefully curled up somewhere else, and then...

...gently pull the rug from under her.  

'That'll soften her cough!' said 'Troushka triumphantly, bearing the rug out to the garden where she proceeded to demolish it beyond repair.  Ah well, back to the fabric cupboard and the sewing machine.

And speaking of sewing, and thereby knitting, there has been some activity on that front.  The Rainshine Shawl was finally finished, although the last couple of rows, with all the beading, took several days just by themselves.  It's a superb pattern though, and well worth the trouble.  I made it in a silk yarn which I'd hand-dyed, and it looks great thrown around your neck casually or opened fully and draped deeply for an exceptionally dramatic entrance on a grand occasion.

And guess what happened as a perfectly lovely offshoot from De New Book?  Darling Meagheen, inspired by my descriptions of the druids in ancient Ireland, designed a special Druid's Stocking!  A tall kneesock (or kilt hose might be a more apposite term, as they have lovely turn-down cuffs) with swirling twisting cables, just right for a keeper of wisdom to wear as he tramped through the forest or conducted rituals at a stone circle on a high hill.  Of course I'm going to knit them!  Who wouldn't, with a compliment like that?

Here is the yarn, the very best Wollmeise in a rich Druidical green, and fine needles, all ready to start.  I'll keep you posted on how they go.  Knowing Meagheen, they will be deliciously complex yet supremely satisfying to work. And who knows who - or what- you might meet when you wear them walking in a forest glade?

And speaking of forests, we went down to the West Cork woods the other day, wandering over little mossy bridges past rushing rivers, looking for berries and nuts and mushrooms.

 Look at this lovely quiet pool, overhung with bending trees which concealed it from the pathway unless you bent down low and pushed your way through (getting sprinkled with dewdrops on the way, some of which always manage to get down your neck.  The Little People playing games...).

We discovered that the little stony beach by the pool was covered with hazelnuts, not quite ripe yet, but fallen thickly on the ground.  This could have been a double for the legendary pool where the magic hazel trees of knowledge overhang the water and drop their nuts to the waiting salmon who then becomes the Salmon of Knowledge.  We cast a cluster of nuts each into the flowing stream that comes out of the pool, and watched them float away underneath the sheltering trees.  A gift to Themselves, and hopefully received as such.  You never know when you might need their assistance.

And then there were blackberries to pick, along by a deserted fishing village near the shore below Glandore.  People lived in those ivy-covered cottages once, called to each other up and down the lane. Children ran down to the beach to see their fathers coming back from the fishing, scrambling to be first to see what they had caught.  The memory of the past was all around as we picked the blackberries.

Right in the centre of this picture, on that promontory in the bay, you can see Kilcoe Castle, owned by actor Jeremy Irons.  He is much to be lauded for restoring the old ruin in the traditional way, making it look just as it would have done in medieval times.  It's a common mistake to think that old buildings have always looked grey and forbidding;  in the Middle Ages they would have been painted in bright colours, visible from a great distance.  And today, you can see that tradition carried on in rural villages of West Cork where the houses are all shades of a pastel rainbow.

Evening on the beach at Toormore, with the monbretia blooming vividly in its autumn colours.  End of a perfect day.  Even Petroushka crashed out and slept all the way home!

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Altar Stone

Truth is stranger than fiction.  In De New Book (and don't forget, lovely people who've been ordering it from O'Brien Press and requesting personally signed copies, let me know too, so I can match up the personal inscription with the order form, which isn't always easy because I might know you as Meg or Sunshine and the official order will have quite a different name, you can let me know by my email link on this page) ANYWAY where was I?  Oh yes, in De New Book the beautiful ancient site of Gougane Barra gets a good look in, both for its history and for its traditions which continue to this day.

Now in Gougane, on the tiny island in the lake -

There is a green island in lone Gougane Barra
Where Allua of songs rushes forth as an arrow
In green-valley'd Desmond a thousand wild fountains
Come down to that lake from their home in the mountains...

there is not only the tiny 19thc church which is enormously popular for weddings (and who could blame any couple for wanting to plight their troth in a place like this?) but the ruins of a much earlier chapel which lie, moss-grown and peaceful, to the back of the island.  Within these ruins, laid on a rock, is the venerable slab known for centuries as The Altar Stone.

For generations, those doing 'the rounds' at Gougane at St John's Eve and in late September pause at this stone and make crosses in its surface with a sharp pebble.  Over the years the grooves have been worn deeper and deeper as the faithful perpetuate a tradition that is likely to have started a long long time before Christianity ever reached this land.  Since time immemorial it has been customary to make sunwise circles around a sacred site and mark stones at specific points to ensure good harvests, good fortunes, fertility, cures.  And the Altar Stone is part of that tradition.

Or it was until a little while ago.  Breda Lucey, whose family run the wonderful old-world hotel at Gougane, went over one evening and discovered to her shocked surprise that the stone was gone. Nowhere to be seen.  It had vanished utterly.

Outside, in the greater world, theft and criminal acts are, sadly, accepted as part of daily life. But Gougane is a place apart, a sheltered haven where those seeking help and guidance have been comforted and supported by the very strength and spirit of the place.  Who could commit such an act?

The reverberations of Gougane's loss echoed well beyond the valley.  The police, the clergy, the newspapers, TV and radio all joined in the questioning and the searching.

The assistance of a diving club from Cork was requested.  When they heard what was missing and from where, they declined any payment for probing the depths of the lake - known in ancient times as Irce, after a goddess who protected its waters and its sacred island.  'Sure wasn't I married on that island myself,' said their group leader.

They searched the water for hours, hoping that perhaps some thoughtless teenagers had hefted its not inconsiderable weight as far as the shore just for a joke and slid it into the depths.  But nothing was found.  Members of the Lucey family donned waders and trudged right around the edges of the island in the shallower water, hoping to find the stone lying there.  But it was not.

One would feel tempted to say that no luck will come to those who have taken the Gougane Barra stone.  It's hard to think otherwise.  If someone desired it for a garden ornament, an amusing souvenir, or, worse still, stole it as a commercial undertaking on request, then one would not be in their shoes in the future.  The Altar Stone is part of Gougane, and should remain where it belongs.  Everyone hopes that it might quite suddenly be discovered one day soon, perhaps by the side of the little road that leads into the valley, returned quietly in the middle of the night.  If so, the matter would rest there.

In the meantime, the faithful will continue to observe the tradition of St John's Eve when they make the rounds, If the stone is not there, they will touch the tree under which it lay.  The custom will continue, as the Midsummer bonfires blaze on the hills around.

Those same Midsummer bonfires are another fascinating echo of the past (yes, they're given full coverage in De New Book).  Today's little rapscallions rushing around with branches and anything else they can lay their hands on to feed the bonfire (in city streets I've seen old furniture being pulled out of houses and thrown on the blaze) have no idea that they are continuing to observe a tradition whose origins go back far into the mists of prehistory.  In ancient times druids would kindle the sacred bonfire, made of nine special woods, and from that fire all household hearths would be re-ignited, having been put out beforehand.  Cattle were driven through the smoke, and young couples joined hands and jumped over the flames.

Once I had the good fortune to be flying back into Cork on St John's Eve.  Looking out of the plane you could see the grey smoke of a hundred bonfires curling and wreathing up to the clouds, right across the countryside and the city.  (Yes, the fire service does regard this night with apprehension, do you need to ask?)  It was a strange scene, and one which confirmed the strength of the old ways, even when today's fire-makers have no idea why they are doing it, just that it's something they must do.

Had a spell of tidying up not long ago.  Having opened a cupboard in search of a knitting project, and then retiring hastily as dozens of project bags fell out and tumbled all over the floor, I decided enough was enough.  The sight of so many UFOs (UnFinished Objects) was intensely depressing, and the only way to deal with that is to SORT IT OUT.

Here is the sorry heap of horror.  Half-finished, hardly-started, rejected, mixed up, totally forgotten about.  Time to show a little discipline chez Celtic Memory.  Several days of determined unpicking, rewinding, even (in a couple of rare cases) rescuing and laying on one side to finish after all, led to this:

Neatly-wound balls of yarn, ready to be returned to their respective boxes.  One dog mat for the car, which was so close to being finished that it hardly took ten minutes.  And lots and lots of lovely circular knitting needles of every gauge, crochet hooks, and stitch holders.  Oh I did feel virtuous. Currently am trying very hard to restrain the overwhelming urge to cast on for seventy-two shiny new projects before finishing those lying patiently in wait.

Speaking of dog mats, Petroushka, being still somewhat of a puppy, demanded a good day out recently.  'I'm entitled,' she explained, sitting up earnestly and studying our faces at the breakfast table.  'Every dog has her day, and mine is NOW!'  So we took her to West Cork's lovely coastline, and let her run wild on Toormore beach (she's out there somewhere, a tiny speck in the distance) which was deserted, despite it being a lovely summer weekend.  We still don't get crowds here, thanks be.

Then we went up to the hill above Lissagriffin and wandered around the old graveyard which holds many victims of the Famine in huge unmarked plots.  It's hard to imagine such sorrow and grief in a place like this, but echoes of the past are everywhere.

Came back through the Pass of Keimaneigh and discovered this lovely green woodland by a stream.

It was ridiculously Tolkien-ish and you kept expecting to see elven folk flitting among the trees and perhaps a green elvenstone lying by the water.

And finally, as evening was drawing in, we walked across the old clapper bridge at Ballingeary.  The hollowed slabs showed how many had walked that way before us over the centuries.  A lovely end to a perfect day.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Fair Set The Wind For France - And For De New Book!

I'd been feeling a bit under the weather a while back, so DH decided what I needed was a relaxing trip to France by car.  After so much air travel, going by ferry is an utterly blissful experience.  You just load up with everything you think you might need, from spanners and battery charges (DH) to knitting projects and books (me).  Then you simply pootle down to the ferry port, drive on board what must be the most delightful ship ever (Brittany Ferries' Pont Aven) and, barely pausing to drop your overnight bag in the cabin, head straight up to the patisserie for afternoon coffee.  Followed by an indulgent dinner and a good sleep to a gentle rocking.  When you wake up, you're in France!  No queues, no baggage weigh-in, no sitting rammed into a tight space for several hours, absolutely no hassle.  I can quite see what our grandparents enjoyed about going to New York by liner.  I'd do it myself if the QE2 were more obliging with timetables.

DH wanted to visit Noirmoutier in the Vendee to look for bluethroats.  This is the causeway which links the long island to the mainland.  At high tide it's submerged, but at low tide, just look what happens!

The whole world, his wife, and his grandmother too, head out to dig for palourdes (cockles in the Old World, mini-clams in the New).  It was fascinating to watch them carrying on this age-old harvesting.

The medieval city of Guerande where we stayed had this marvellous gargoyle (among hundreds of others, they're not short on gargoyles in France as a general rule).

Do you think it's a nun or a cat?  Or a blend of both?  Strange, I thought.

One of the most unusual experiences was stopping at a petrol station on the way down the autoroute.  These aires or rest stops are pretty busy, crowded places, the last location for anything charming or gentle or indeed unexpected.  But what would you call this?

A whole meadow of sweet peas, right between the petrol pumps and the exit road.  No, really.  I couldn't believe the incredible scent and just had to get down and lie among them.  For heaven's sake, I didn't know sweet peas could hold their own out there in the real world!  Where I live they have to be cosseted and coaxed into blossom and then revered and sheltered.  Here they were fighting cheerfully and giving tough remarks to the few invading poppies.  Must be the sunshine which was growing stronger the further south we headed.

Nipped past the medieval city of Carcassonne, famed in many a blockbuster novel.  We know its traffic jams of old, so contented ourselves with taking a quick view or two as we kept going.

Because I couldn't wait to get to the Pyrenees.  I'd been thinking of them for months, dreaming of the wonderful moment when you stare at the clouds floating far ahead on the horizon and then slowly realise that they're not clouds, they're the snow-capped peaks of that great barrier between France and Spain.  Once you're past the congested city of Lourdes, the road gets quieter (not surprisingly, since it also gets extremely narrow and exceptionally twisting).  But it's balm to the soul and to the heart to be back there among the wild ravines and crags.  You breathe easier in that amazing mountain air.

This of course is the awe-inspiring Cirque de Gavarnie, a sheer cliff face rising into the sky as the most formidable barrier imaginable.  (One generally avoids the over-used term 'awe-inspiring', but this is one example of where it is justified.)  Can you imagine a weary pilgrim on the way to Santiago de Compostela from Paris or London or anywhere else in northern Europe, taking a wrong path at the last minute and ending up facing that?  Because of course there are narrow and dangerous paths some way on either side of the impassable Cirque which will take you over the peaks into Spain.  And a road for cars too, nearer to Biarritz.  But I still like to think of those who sought safety and refuge by crossing the mountains from one country to another in harsher, more uncertain times.  The same thought occurred when flying across America some years ago, and looking down on the appalling tumbled mass of rocks and peaks that faced the early pioneers heading for California.  What did the women feel when they looked at the way they would have to go, and then looked at their children, their own aching, weary feet, their remaining baggage?  By that time of course to return would have been impossible, so going on was the only option.

Oh I have to show you this one.  If you're thinking of trading up on  your house, wait until you've explored this opportunity.  I'm being fairly generous sharing it with you, because I saw it first and I want it, I want it, I WANT IT!

This desirable residence is way up in the Pyrenees, in the Vallee d'Ossue, not far from Gavarnie.  No, I actually didn't notice any electricity cables or indeed water pumps, but I'm sure it has all the conveniences the true romantic would need.  Wouldn't you agree?  And of course happy wildlife all around to keep you from being lonely.

I loved the way Mama Marmot was placidly gazing at the view here while her children murdered each other in the background.  It's the same in every family, isn't it?

What was more unexpected in the wildlife line came as we were traversing an extremely streep and narrow road down from the heights, finding extreme difficulty in navigating through heavy cloud which had descended and masked everything more than a few inches in front of the car.  At times you literally couldn't see the road - and since there was a rock wall on one side and a vertical drop of a few hundred feet on the other, that was kind of worrying.  There was even snow banked up in some places.  And then, quite suddenly -

these appeared out of the mist, crossed the road in front of us, and then paused politely on the hillside to allow DH to let go of the steering wheel and grab his camera (I, meanwhile, grabbed the handbrake and pulled it.  Hard.)  Now what are the odds of finding three llamas crossing your path?  Is it good luck or what?  A sign?

A few kilometres further down, the mist lifted and we were back in brilliant sunshine.  With gentians.  Now Celtic Memory's favourite colour is undoubtedly bright blue and gentians hit the spot precisely.

This is the sock I was working on during the trip.  An Austrian twisted-stitch design which isn't quite finished yet.  (Have you ever tried working twisted stitches on switchback roads?)  When I do finish and wear these, I will always remember the gentians.

Down from the heights, a sharp turn right, and eventually you hit the South of France.  But not, alas the glamour of St Tropez.  DH had his eye and his heart set on the Camargue and a particularly hot and dusty plain known as La Crau.

La Crau is where you send cars for punishment.  If yours is acting up, give it a week on this and it will come home begging for mercy.  Small vicious rocks cover the ground almost entirely, with dry red dust trying to make a living between.  Occasionally huge flocks of sheep, their fleeces stained red by the dust, wander past, ensuring nothing else can grow very fast or for very long.  On colder winter nights the sheep stay in tiled barns like the one shown here.  Which also play host to lesser kestrels in the roof space.  Which is why DH spent an entire very hot day there.

But I didn't mind.  The south of France meant we were within easy striking distance of historic Orange.

Stunning place with all its ancient remains, and quite a charming place to spend an evening too.  Quite close to Avignon and all its sights, but out of the really huge crowds of tourists.  And at dawn next morning I was waiting impatiently at the gates of a very old mill a few miles north.

I'd been determined to get here, ever since the French trip was mooted, but DH had thought it was too much out of our way.  Ha!  I knew once I tempted him with the Camargue I was home and dry!

Pierre Loye et Cie has been on this site for about two  hundred years, spinning those wonderful yarns for Anny Blatt and Bouton d'Or.  And they have a factory shop...

Although it wasn't supposed to open until 11, the staff took pity on me knitting so very obviously outside their gate, and let me in early, through the back door.  Yes, I had a lot of fun.   No, I have no intention of telling you how much I spent.  Some things are better not recorded.

We came back up through the Cevennes (remember Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels With A Donkey?), another place I love a lot.  It has deep gorges and tiny villages clinging to hillsides as they have done for hundreds of years.  If you enlarge this picture (I think you can by clicking on it) you will see what appears to be a strange huge figure standing up there on the crags above the village.  It gave me quite a shock when I glimpsed it.  Didn't know Bigfoot holidayed in Europe!

Even found time to drive through the magical forest of Broceliande, where Merlin lies buried and a thousand legends waft around the sacred fountain.  This is another powerful place, although the little villages are starting to build on its reputation a little too much with a lot of pseudo-magical mystery stuff and souvenir shops.  Can't blame them, though, really.

And so back home, coming into Cork in the early morning where the weather was cool and damp after France but the Continental visitors crowded the deck to look at Cobh and its cathedral, and all the brightly-painted houses spilling down the steep streets to the shore.  Cobh was, of course, the last port of call for the Titanic, but you knew that.

And home to a wonderful surprise.  De New Book had arrived!  A special advance copy was waiting in the letterbox.  You can see what it looks like up there at the top of the page.  It was a long, hard slog (as is every book for every writer) but holding the finished product in your hands for the first time is always incredible.  And, despite all our fears, the sepia tints and black and white pictures did work most effectively.

Don't you think?    Oh I can't disguise it, I'm as proud as Punch!  What started out to be a fairly simple and easy overview of fairy tales and legends took its own path and insisted I explore the old ways and old beliefs of Ireland, showing how they are still there, still practised, still to be found.  And that's what it became.

Oh look, why not show you this?  I got DH to take it in St Malo.  The sign is pointing the way to the ancient House of Poets and Writers.  And I thought well if not now, when?