Wednesday, January 27

Gloom and greyness

January has been a particularly gloomy month, with the general greyness in the weather only being lightened a few times and the gloom of approaching deadlines now too close to ignore. I am trying to convince myself that Things Will Get Better and that the sun WILL come back some day.

But despite the rain and grey skies, I've been out and about doing things that have been sunny in aspect, if not in the physical sense. A visit last weekend to a friend who wants to start spinning prompted me to sort out my stalled spinning stash and to finish spinning a hank of gorgeous yarn from some Bowmont fleece I picked up ages ago at the Vauxhall City Farm spinning group. It was quite difficult to spin because the fleece was not very well shorn and I had trouble picking out suitable bits to spin. But the resulting yarn is glorious; as you will see if you Google Bowmont, it is a rare breed cross of Shetland/Merino, bred for its exceedingly high quality fleece which makes a light, lofty yarn. Devon Fine Fibres has a lot of information here.

I've already made another hank which was dyed blue in an indigo dip, and I hope to combine the two into some kind of Scandinavian hat or hats. Alternatively I might just carry the yarn around with me and stroke it occasionally - it's gorgeous!

I've also been indulging in a bit of creativity at the Crazy Glazy ceramics cafe in Huntingdon - you'll get to see the results in due course, assuming that the kiln doesn't eat it and it survives the journey back to London! It was good fun but a lot more difficult than I thought it would be - even though I chose a very simple design.

Tuesday, January 19

24 hours, Pavey Ark

24 hours, Pavey Ark from Michael Moloney Studio on Vimeo.

It might take a while to download, but this is very much worth waiting for. Forget the cold and the snow and the greyness, dream of summer and hills and walking.

Thanks to Gareth for sending me the link. You can read more about the artists and the process of making the film here.

Sunday, January 17

Pootling about in Surrey Quays

The new bike got her first proper outing today, the weather being absolutely glorious for the first time in ages. It was also considerably warmer so my feet didn't get quite so cold and I was able to pootle around quite happily for about two hours.

This bike is absolutely made for pootling. The kick stand means I can jump on and off to take photos without having to find somewhere to lean the bike, and the riding position and restricted number of gears make it ideal for riding slowly and leisurely while observing everything around. I fixed the basket to the back rack with a couple of bungies, and was able to just put my bag inside it.

We made our way over to the Decathlon store at Surrey Quays first of all to look for a bell, some lights, spare inner tubes, etc etc. From here we just pootled around through Russia Dock Woodlands, stopping to climb Stave Hill and admire the panoramic view.

Heading off down the long path in the middle of this photo brought us to the basin at the end of Albion Channel, which we then followed back to Surrey Quays and from here back to Greenwich.

The gears did get going in the end and I managed to sample all three throughout the ride. The only slightly annoying thing is that on the whole, the gears change when they feel like it, usually some time after you move the shifter.

Also the chain guard seems to be a bit battered; it worked loose after a while and kept catching on my pedal. Might have to take it off and try to renovate it, or else look out for a replacement.

Today's highlights were seeing a green woodpecker in Russia Dock Woodlands and watching the gulls on the ice that's still covering a large part of Greenland Dock.

Saturday, January 16

New kid in the shed

I'm having a bit of a clear out in the shed to make room for my new folding shopper. Well, I say new - she's only new to me, via Ebay!

I've been wanting to get a sit-up and beg type bike for ages, to try and reduce the wear and tear on my wrists from the touring bike I normally ride and also to have an option that I can ride in normal clothes, coats, hats etc.

But the shortage of space in the shed and the thought of carrying a large Pashley-type bike up all the stairs made me decide against it...until I happened upon this little beauty, that is!

This is a 1970s Raleigh 20, so-called because of its 20" wheels which are larger than those on a lot of folding bikes. It's called a 'Stowaway' but is only nominally a folding bike; it goes in half and the handlebars can be easily skewed but it doesn't go as small as a Brompton or something like that.

I've already adjusted the seat (a new gel seat, not the solid original thankfully, although I have still got that if I want to really go retro - ouch!) and the handlebars and have taken it for a spin round the block.

It's really nice to ride although I found it was pulling ever so slightly to one side - it could be that the headset needs cleaning/replacing - and the gears definitely need adjusting as it only seems to have one speed at the moment! It has a 3-speed Sturmey Archer hub but instead of the usual thumb-lever to change gears, it has an unusual grip-shifter. I didn't even know they had been invented then, I thought they were a modern thing!

I'm going to do a bit more cleaning of the chrome (probably trying this tutorial I found on a very interesting site), have a go at adjusting the gears, and kit it up with lights, bell, pump, tools etc. I found an excellent site with lots of videos about bike maintenance, although this will be more useful for my other bike than the old shopper! I also got some new panniers for christmas that I might try on the bike - they are flowery and green so will go very well in terms of style, but I'm not sure if they are too long for the wheel size.

There will also be a basket on the front of course, although I might adapt the wire one I've got. I'm not sure wicker is the style for a 70s shopper. If I can get a tartan bag for the back, the look will be complete!

Sunday, January 10

Signs of a thaw

When I went out the balcony this morning with my kettle of hot water I was surprised to find that the dish of water I put out for the birds was still water. For the last week or so it has been frozen solid. I guess this means that a thaw is on the way.

Despite the inconvenience of the snow and the hazard of walking anywhere, I was quite saddened by this. Secretly I'm hoping for more snow and ice, as I've been quite enjoying the enforced rest and crafting time. Most of the pavements on the main roads around here have been clear for a couple of days, but our car park and local roads still retain quite a bit of snow. But the cold has also made it unappealing to venture out except for the essentials, and has given me a new lease of life indoors!

I've still been going out - to work last week, and to shop for me and my elderly neighbour in the last couple of days - but I've not gone anywhere else really, being confined to barracks and adhering to the advice to not travel 'unless absolutely necessary'. It has been quite liberating to be able to spend so much time reading, knitting, weaving and cooking without feeling like I should be out there 'making the most' of my free time.

In London of course we are very lucky that - apart from Southeastern Trains giving up any attempt to run a full train service at the first sign of snow, and putting into play their 'emergency timetable' (just two trains an hour in the rush hour! Where normally there would be about six!) - things pretty quickly get back to normal.

Other friends of mine are not so lucky, but it's interesting to compare how people cope with the snow, with being housebound, and even just with their own interpretation of what it means.

One friend told me she was 'completely snowbound' - how can this be, I thought, when she lives next door to a large supermarket and only a few minutes' walk to the centre of the small town. What she actually meant was that she couldn't get the car out to drive anywhere!

On the other hand, another friend was truly snowbound in a small village on the edge of the Somerset Levels. She was rather peeved that she could still get to work as she works in the same village, but had no mail for days and was relying on the village shop and leftover christmas chocolates for nourishment!

A report on the radio yesterday said that local shops had experienced a boom in sales, so at least there has been a silver lining for someone apart from me!

Saturday, January 9

Learning curve

Today I finished my first 'proper' weaving project, and wanted to write about what I had learned from it. I started this in the christmas holidays and it didn't really take me too long to finish; the slow parts were:

a. calculating the length of the warp and weft (more about this later!)
b. warping the loom
c. having to order more weft yarn

So far all the weaving I've done has been self-taught using Deborah Chandler's book Learning to Weave, which I've written about before. I was frustrated by the level of detail she goes into, but now I'm gaining the benefit as I start to learn more and ask questions. She seems to answer them all quite thoroughly.

However, as the book says over and over again, each project is a learning curve and you will learn something new with each attempt.

My intention was to weave a scarf for my mum's birthday, which falls in the middle of January. I already knew that I wanted to use Noro Silk Garden yarn as the weft; this is a lovely mix of silk, lambswool and mohair which has very long sections of colour and beautiful gradations between each colour, making it ideal for creating a stripey-effect scarf.

My initial test sampler used double-knit wool for the warp, and I wanted to make the fabric of this scarf less stiff, so I chose some leftover sock yarn as the warp, hoping that this thinner ply would make the difference.

I chose two contrasting colours - a dark burgundy and a bright pinky red - as I wanted some striping to show along the length of the scarf and contrast with the weft. I alternated them in fours.

Other than that, it was a fairly straightforward process to weave - the only major difficulty being in trying to keep track of the colour changes. It's not possible to get a whole ball of this yarn on a shuttle at one time, so I had to wind a bit on at a time. However you have to wind it off the ball into another ball, then 'backwards' onto the shuttle, to make sure that you are starting on the right section of colour.

I really got into the swing of the weaving process - it's important to leave just the right amount of weft yarn in the shed on each pass. If you leave too much it will bulge out at the ends, too little and it will pull in at the sides when you beat it. I think I've done a really good job on this one, the selvedges are pretty straight and the width of the scarf is fairly constant.

So how did it come out? The biggest problem was the length - once it was finished and I started unwinding it from the loom, it just kept on coming! I did have an inkling about this, since I had predicted from my weft calculations that the two balls of Noro in my stash would be enough - and yet halfway through the weaving it became clear that I would need a third ball. In fact I finished the whole of the third ball as well! But I had found the weft calculations a bit confusing, so I just assumed that I'd not done them properly. The finished object is way too long - and when I measured it I discovered it's about one and a half times the length I anticipated!

What went wrong?

I thought back over what I had done, and looked at the calculations again, and came to the conclusion that a couple of things I had done had created this monster. Firstly I had been too generous with my prediction of loom waste (the bits you need at the beginning and end of the warp so that you can tie it on to the loom) and this had been exacerbated by the fact that I had woven as far as I physically could on the end.

But when I'd been measuring the length of the initial 'guide thread' (this is the one you measure all your warp against) I had measured it slack. Of course when you put it on the loom, you tension it and when it is wool, this can mean quite an additional stretch! For the required warp length of 272cm on this project, the stretch alone accounted for a further 30cm or thereabouts!

I could easily have adjusted this on the loom by only weaving the length I required - but of course once your warp is on the loom it is wound round the apron at the back or front, and it's very difficult to tell how much you have woven. For future projects I think I will have to come up some way of checking this.

Incidentally I went back over the measuring and warping instructions in Deborah's book but couldn't find any obvious mention of this phenomena, so I didn't feel quite so stupid after all!

The other thing I could have been more efficient about was the finishing. It wasn't till I'd taken it off the loom and oohed and ahhed and laughed at the length of it that I decided I should find out how to finish it properly. I wasn't intending to put a fringe on it, but the stitched method of finishing 'is easiest done when the item is still on the loom' said the book...doh! The good news is that all the ends don't have to be sewn in - apparently you can just cut them off!

Finally I didn't really think about how the warp colours would look as a fringe - the pink is a bit lairy and I'm not sure I really like it, but it's too late for that now. Besides I've decided that I'm keeping the scarf - my mum is very slight and this scarf is big enough for her to wear as a toga if she really wanted to!

After washing, the fibres in the yarns relaxed and the fabric became noticeably softer. The Noro is stunning used in this way.

Crochet intermission

In between the weaving (more of which later), cooking, walking and cycling of the christmas holidays, I had a bit of a crochet phase after happening across this blog written by Michelle, an Australian with a passion for granny squares and all things vintage (check out her other blog 'loving the vintage').

She has some great tutorials for crocheted stars, trees, hearts and circles all based on the traditional granny square and easy to knock up when you have a few minutes spare. I was a bit late to make any christmas decorations, but after making a few yellow stars, green trees and red hearts, decided to make some smaller stars in fine crochet cotton that could be used either as decorations or jewellery.

They are terribly cute, I have to admit!

Friday, January 8


Or razor clams, as they are more commonly known. A taste of Britain explains how 'spoots' as they are called in Scotland are only really eaten in the Orkney Islands and a few other corners of Scotland, and this habit is derived purely from the fact that Orkney islanders in particular will eat anything in bad weather, is the implication. The book dates from about 15 years ago.

Plus ca change! These days they are considered as something of a delicacy; I have seen Jamie Oliver steaming them as part of a seafood BBQ on his Jamie at home series, and if you Google for recipes, there is no shortage of suggestions. I ate a plate of them at a pub in the Isle of Wight last year and thoroughly enjoyed them - doused in garlic butter!

Of course for most people the difficult bit (after persuading yourself to eat them) is actually finding them. In Deptford we are incredibly lucky to have several wet fish shops in a single shopping street, and the presence of a mixture of West Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese local population also means that there is a high demand for all sorts of unusual fish and seafood. Razor clams are regularly on sale in at least one of our local wet fish shops and today I decided to try some.

I decided to grill them until the shells opened, then chuck them in a pan with some leeks and spring onion that had been sweated in butter and oil, chilli, garlic, white wine and fresh parsley for a couple of minutes and serve with bread.

This article helped me work out how to prepare them and which bits were best to eat, but I found the preparation was a bit disconcerting and it wasn't till afterwards that I read Meemalee's account of preparing razor clams and completely empathised with her!

Comments such as 'I still have nightmares about the plooshing noise the clams made as I washed them' and 'Try not to freak out as the live clams begin to ooze out and loll around before closing up' give you some idea of what to expect. Now I've dressed crabs and cleaned squid without any problem, but I did find the squirtyness of these spoots rather unappealing.

I think my big mistake was to throw them in a bowl of water to wash them, rather than doing it under running water. They seemed to suck up the water like they hadn't drunk anything for about a week (probably the case) and the clams came 'oozing and lolling' out of their shells like it was going out of fashion. I hurriedly lifted them out of the water onto the draining board, at which point they began plooshing and squirting the water out at each end, in between plenty of squelching noises. This continued as I put them under the grill and made me feel very vividly that this was perhaps a rather cruel death to subject them to.

I did enjoy the flavour of the clams, and would eat them again if I got the chance, but I would caution that their preparation is not for the faint hearted or even the vaguely squeamish among you!

Tuesday, January 5

Kentish cobnuts and sloe gin

One of the books I received for christmas 2008, and which I dip into now and again, is the fantastic 'The taste of Britain' by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown. This is a wonderful book born out of a project to identify and classify as many British foods with regional affiliations as possible. In the same way that sparkling wine is only Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region in France, and only certain parts of Italy can produce Parmigiano Reggiano, this was an attempt to identify our traditional foods and discover the real character of British taste.
Brought back into favour by the recent trend towards serving local foods, this 2006 reprint has a foreword by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and some delightful illustrations within its classily-bound hard covers. Inside, it is divided into regions and each chapter attempts to identify and define the regional foods, from meats to sweets.
There are some wonderful old words in these pages: pikelets, huffkins and Bedfordshire clangers, Dorset and Norfolk knobs, Bath chaps, brawn, spoots and clootie dumplings among others. If you ever wondered what jellied eels are, who invented kippers or how you make a Welsh cake, this is the book you need!

I dipped into the book recently after my Kentish new year with friends who live near Penshurst. As usual I came back laden with goodies, including a bagful of Kentish cobnuts, which I had always assumed were the same as hazelnuts. But the shells were longer and the nuts much sweeter that those you buy from the supermarkets, and I discovered that these were a particular variety introduced in the early 1800s, originally known as Lambert's Filbert but renamed the Kentish cobnut at the start of the 20th century. At this time, more than 7,000 acres of land in Britain, most of it in Kent, was used to grow cobnuts, a large quantity of which was exported to the USA. Only a few specialist growers remain now, with Kent still the main centre of production but orchards also in Sussex, Devon and Worcestershire. The local term for a hazelnut orchard is a 'plat'.

While visiting with the same friends we also had the opportunity to toast the new year with a glass of sloe gin, another British speciality which originates in Kent. Sloes are a type of wild plum, the fruit of the blackthorn bush which is native to Britain and in many hedgerows and scrubby woodlands. Sloe gin is one of the most commonly-homemade alcoholic beverages, being very easy to create. Prick the sloes, put them in a bottle of gin with some sugar, and leave for a few months. Er, that's it! You can strain off the berries, or just leave them in the bottle for a decorative touch.

I was also quite chuffed to read in the book that 'bittermints' (minty fondant centre covered in dark chocolate) are regarded as the quintessential British mint and were first produced (and still are!) by Bendicks of Mayfair, London. Or The Knit Nurse of London SE8, although I do think mine were possibly a little too sugary to really qualify as bittermints!

Sunday, January 3

London loop - Ewell West to Kingston

Trying to ward off the gloom of going back to work, myself and my good friend Gareth made the most of the glorious sunshine to sneak in a last cheeky walk before we hit the New Year doldrums. Despite the day being bitterly cold, the sun shone almost non-stop and we enjoyed some dramatic lighting and startling colours and shapes of trees against the sky.

We took the train from Waterloo to Ewell West (enjoying the freedom to travel extensively without having to buy tickets, now that the Oyster 'pay as you go' card is accepted on London's overground trains as well as the rest of the city's public transport) to walk a 7.5 mile section of the London Loop.

The first two thirds of the walk were very pleasant, following the Hogsmill River from Bourne Hall Park towards the shopping metropolis of Kingston. However once we got to the grotty suburbia of Berrylands, the walk started to pall a little and for the last couple of miles we found ourselves wishing we'd stopped when we reached the A3 and got a bus back.

But we did enjoy lots of brightly-lit wintry trees, the sound of a woodpecker tapping away in the distance, several herons and lots of tits flitting about (make your own jokes there please).

And when we finally reached Kingston, we lunched at our favourite riverside establishment, Woody's, the place where the sandwiches are definitely of the 'doorstep' variety! Excellent chips and great beer completed the obligatory post-walk trio.

Please also note the Norwegian star earflap hat (with optional pompom) is proving both popular and practical!