In February I was asked to sew two 1920’s slips for the Napier Art Deco Festival and launched into a frantic couple of days of research on fabrics, length, cut and finish details.
Slips were generally made of silk or ‘art silk’ (rayon/viscose) and tended to be soft pastel colours with peachy tones being particularly popular. Lace detailing and picot hems were standard, as were straight necklines. Generally there was some form of fullness in the side of the skirt, starting from the dropped waist. This was generally in the form of pleating, though could also be gathered.
But it was not until viewing two original slips that I could be accurate with construction techniques and pattern cutting. (And it seems rude not to share the little gems of information gleaned from the two slips I was loaned!)
So here are studies of two original 1920’s slips!
The Pink Scalloped Slip:
This original 1920’s slip demonstrates a most likely home-made garment. The internal seams have raw edges, and are sewn by hand. The hem has been professionally picot edged in a scallop design. During the ’20’s picot edging was something which was available as a professional service for the home sewer, in a similar way that pleating and buttonholes still are.
The most interesting details about this slip are:
It is cut as one piece (plus the straps) and so only has one side seam in the skirt.
Has a draw cord around the neckline allowing for adjustment
The size is not tiny and sylphlike! The bust measures 98cm (38.5″) which equates to approximately a NZ size 12.
The fabric is crisp and doesn’t hang how I expected, but with the flat box pleats the maker has worked the fabric to its best advantage. So this was clearly made by someone skilled if not professional.
The ‘G. Fox and Co’ Slip
By contrast, this slip is made by machine, and is professionally finished with French seams. It is labelled G. Fox & Co. Inc. Hartford, Conn. and so was therefore sold from the eleven story, family run, department store of the same name.
This slip has clearly been well worn, altered and repaired. The largest alteration is to the length; the hem has been taken up several inches and the alteration is cleverly hidden by the lace trim. I do wonder if it was altered to fit a new owner, or to fit a new fashion? Hem lengths rose significantly in 1925-6 compared to those of the early twenties, could this slip have been adjusted to fit below newer, shorter dresses?
The fullness added at the side is done in an interesting way – where the other slip was box pleated, this one has a long fold hanging from the side seam and a dart pointing towards the centre front. The soft drape of the fabric means that this potentially bulky arrangement hangs very well.
The straps have clearly been replaced as the fabric they are made from is different from the rest of the slip, but matches a patch under the arm!
These may seem like insignificant details but these are what make the slips so interesting to study and to recreate – things were done differently a century ago! I suspect there are more 1920’s style slips going to pass through my workroom – and I am pleased to have some first-hand knowledge on the construction, paneling and finish details to ensure the reproduction pieces are as close to originals as possible.
Purchase your own slip made to measure from my Etsy shop HERE.
It’s not every day that you are offered a gorgeous 1930’s silk chiffon Dressing gown to borrow, and even rarer to be allowed to take a pattern. But in February I took the opportunity very gratefully, knowing a reproduction of it would be a striking addition to my newly launched Etsy Store!
This is the glorious original garment I was loaned:
Made from a soft peach, crinkly silk chiffon the original wearer would have been a little pixie lady; even my small frame at 5’4″ left the hem comically short, and the snaps at the waist were unable to close around my 25″ waist. The challenge was therefore not just in copying a pattern, but in scaling it to fit a modern body.
The wonderful thing about taking a pattern off an original garment is that you learn so much. This robe features many 1930s details:
Hand-sewn lace applique
Bias cut skirt
Nipped in waist
Asymmetric neckline and sash.
But it was only when tracing the pattern that I discovered the skirt was cut in a very clever way: it is self lined, but the lining and outer layer are cut differently. The outer back panel is cut on the bias, so although the pattern piece has the hem at one continuous length, the bias stretch in the centre back creates a small train which hangs 12cm longer than the rest of the hemline. By contrast, the lining for the centre back skirt is less flared and cut on the straight grain, this controls the fullness of the outer skirt and saves on fabric!
Like many long bias cut garments of its time, the pattern pieces were obviously wider than the narrow fabrics available, and so the skirt is cunningly pieced. Additional seams in the corners of long panels extend the pieces beyond the width of the fabric and are sewn with selvages together so that there was no risk of fraying and no added bulk of finishing any raw edges.
Of course, the most obvious detail is the lace! This too has been very carefully worked, and has become a part of the garments structure. Rather than being sewn flat to the chiffon, the chiffon has been tucked and gathered onto the lace, adding a blousy fullness into the bodice.
The sleeves are of an eye-catching shape peculiar to the 1930’s; being gathered along the underarm seam and from the shoulder seam along the length of the arm.
The bodice is also lined, and again the lining is less full than the outer layer, this holds the fullness in position and guides the gathers on where to sit.
All these details were carefully traced onto pattern paper. The pattern cutting process is quite simple in theory; lay newsprint down on the carpeted floor, lay the garment on top and stretch and pin each panel piece one at a time. The pins stick into the carpet and provide as much or as little tension as needed. On a delicate garment like this it is important to stretch only very gently to prevent the pins pulling holes. Silk chiffon is always a trick to work with, it stretches where it should not and skews into deformed shapes.
But with patience, the pattern I ended up with was accurate. So I scaled it up to approx an NZ size 8 or 10, and adjusted some details to suit my fabrics and purpose.
While I admired the self lined skirt and the inserted lace of the original, I was using a lustrous viscose satin which is not sheer like a chiffon and so I chose not to line the skirt at all. I retained the bias cut skirt back and straight-grain skirt front, french seaming them together to maintain a high standard of finish on the inside.
The Neckline and cuffs I trimmed with lace, but rather than inserting it (cutting the fabric away so the lace is un-backed) I appliqued the lace on top of the satin. This was done mainly for ease of sewing, but also for structural strength – this is a wearable, (hand) washable garment, able to be lived in!
The silver viscose satin was rather beautifully partnered with a purple-grey lace from my stash. This was hand trimmed to remove the mesh, pinned in position and painstakingly hand-sewn to keep each twirly pinnacle in its proper position. Due to the smaller lace motif than the original, the lace sat with two points down the back as opposed to one.
After over twenty hours of work, from pattern-making to the final scraps of lace being stitched down, the gown was completed!
We chose to do a photoshoot in central Napier, as Napier is the ‘Art Deco Capital of the World’ and allows a wonderful variety of appropriate back drops, from the detailed entrance-way of the Gallery, to the modern pier. Though I had not intended to model the robe myself, I am very happy with the photos!
The gown was delightful to model, catching the wind in its billowing skirt, shining in the sun and attracting attention from passers by.
The crowning glory, however, is the lace detailing – hand cut lace applique, painstakingly sewn around the cuffs and neckline – which provides the quality finish that sets this garment apart as a unique hand crafted item.
The viscose has a lovely weight to it, allowing the skirt to flow gracefully as you move and giving the ruched sleeves genuine fullness. The silky satin fabric looks and feels luxurious, especially in this enchanting silver colour.
This is the most recent listing on my brand new Etsy Shop and is available for purchase HERE.
This item was made by Tammy Twinkletoes in Napier, the Art Deco Capital of the World
Inspired by evenings spent with friends at the Hawkes Bay Club and The County Hotel
Photographed outside the iconic Art Deco entrance to the Napier Art Gallery.
Taking a break from some design work, it is both a little strange to be writing up my travel experiences which now seem so long ago, and a lovely way of reliving them. Rather than being in New Zealand this afternoon I can imagine I am back in Paris!
We landed in Paris on the 1st of August 2016, and the ladies at passport control never lifted their eyes from the desk; much less answer my cheery ‘Bonjour!’ It felt unlikely that within 10 minutes of landing we were through security and free, where was the heightened guard against terrorism that the media had led us to expect?
The long train ride into the city was a taste of the variety of Paris, the day was growing dark as out the window grey, graffiti-ed apartments flashed past. The assorted airport arrivals interspersed with a motley selection from all walks of life. A large German Shepherd sat opposite us in a muzzle, at the feet of a security guard on his way to work. Someway down the train distant trills of an accordion toting busker drifted against the background noise of the train. Paris is grime and poverty versus romance and wealth. It takes me a little time to see past the ‘beware of pickpocket’ signs.
While hordes of tourists queued for every famous attraction, we relaxed in the Luxembourg Gardens which are surprisingly large and free (rare in Paris). Radiating out from Luxembourg Palace are flower beds, wooded areas, ponds and long corridors of grass edged by rows of trees. One section of grass was for picnicking on, so we lay there, surrounded by Parisians in carelessly short summer dresses.
Doing our best to act as locals, we caught the Metro to the Marais area of Paris in the evening to meet a Parisian. Marais is an historic area in central Paris, now considered young and hip. There we spent a happy couple of hours sitting in a very typical Parisian scene; outside a little cafe, on wicker chairs, in a small tree shaded square where cigarette smoke and rain made a cosy atmosphere. We sipped wine and chatted, we learnt that this was obviously a cafe that saw a lot of tourists as the menu listed wine by types of grape (eg Sauvignon Blanc etc) whereas the French way is by region and colour only. Even in France the conversation quickly turned to Brexit (which was then just a couple of weeks old). We had heard little support for Brexit in the UK, and apparently the French reaction was also one of disbelief, they felt hurt and cast aside.
Not yet ready to head indoors in the warm evening, and with the rain eased, we visited the Eiffel Tower to see it light up. Perched on a small strip of grass littered with cigarette stubs we were surrounded by many hawkers plying their wares. The goods were primarily drinks; every few minutes another black man with a bucket of melted ice and bottles would approach: “wine, champagne, beer beer?”
At 9pm it had not been dark enough for the light show, but as 10pm approached the sky was inky and on the hour the majestic golden glow of the tower was interrupted by twinkly, crazy white lights flickering all over. When it started the crowd reacted as one, regardless of language “Ooooooooh!” The light show runs for five minutes starting on the hour. We got up and walked to see it sparkling from different perspectives. As we walked a police car stopped near some hawkers who were displaying their goods on a square of fabric on the footpath. Nonchalantly the hawkers stood up and pulled a string which lifted the squares corners turning it into a bag, they were ready to make themselves scarce! We had guessed that selling alcohol from a bucket was not legal – but it appears neither are knock off Eiffel tower models.
The light show finished and we walked along the Seine riverside towards Le Caveau De La Huchette, the famous Jazz bar. It lies down a very busy alleyway, full of people and clubs – clashing beats from each door. Le Caveau de la Huchette was very unassuming from the outside. We paid the €13 entry and found ourselves in a nearly empty bar. The bar tender turned out to be a real character; I said “Je Voudrais un Sauvignon Blanc s’il vous plait” and was met with a nod of understanding. Yet when my friend asked for a cider in the same manner he was met with a blank look and shrug. My wine arrived in front of me, but the bar tender then busied himself with other customers – pretending he didn’t understand. Eventually he supplied the cider with a big grin as if to say ‘wasn’t that a funny joke!?’ We paid and headed downstairs to the 16th century vault the place is named for. The jazz band was in full swing and already the dance floor was busy with Lindy Hoppers!
A young boy had taken position behind the piano, he looked to be approaching 15, yet he played with great confidence and gusto. His whole frame leaning into each pulsing note. It was thrilling just to watch and listen and dance – the energy of the music and the band was marvelous. Le Caveau de la Huchette has been a jazz bar since the 1949 when jazz greats such as Count Basie played this same stage.
The band went on break and the dance floor emptied, I went to find us waters (as we had been dancing so much!) and made the mistake of asking the bartender for them in English. He spread his hands in a shrug and pointed to a lone lady at the other end of the bar – clear sign language for: ‘ask her to translate’. She had been watching the exchange, she looked my age, confident and sleek in a slim, loose black dress hanging from thin straps – not flushed and sweaty from dancing like me! I explained I was after two glasses of tap water and she translated (in French far more fluent than my own) to the bartender who replied in perfect English “I don’t speak French” and handed me two waters!
I escaped back downstairs, the band struck up its final set and we danced and danced. The American lady from the bar came down and watched, I gave her a wave and she made a motion of a kiss into her fingers as if to say “beautiful!”
There had been a young man with slick backed hair, woolen ’30s suit and braces, an older couple pulling brilliant jazz moves and many more brilliant dancers. We had rescued a young Korean Lady on her own from the over enthusiastic attention of an older, drunker French man. And then all these people had faded away, leaving us with the dance floor to ourselves, while from various nooks and perches secreted away around the perimeter other punters watched, sipping drinks.
When band began packing away at 2am, I wanted to say something to them, but couldn’t think of the appropriate words in French. So instead we headed out of the bar, through tiny arched door ways and up stone spiral staircases. We emerged from the subterranean jazz cavern to find ourselves in a now largely deserted city. Litter blew down the street, taxis prowled. A few lonely walkers marched home, homeless and drunks lay in doorways snoring. The Metro had long closed for the night, so we began the long walk to the hotel.
We crossed onto the island Ile de la Cite, walked past Notre Dame, crossed more bridges, and chose our route based on avoiding dark and scary looking streets, picking whichever option seemed brightest. My feet which had been so happy dancing were now throbbing. But it was warm and at night Paris is quiet and calm.
Eventually we found our Hotel, without listening to the new reception man I asked “Parlez-vous Anglais?” He answered “I gave it my best shot” with an American accent. As we walked to the lift, I still needed to have it explained that his welcoming words had been in English: “Which room number? I’ll get you your key.”
We left Paris the next day, Paris had felt surprisingly safe, perhaps because I knew to expect hawkers and police with ridiculous guns, perhaps because I had imagined more fear caused by the recent terror attacks than there actually is. Paris still smells like a urinal, has more homelessness, cigarette butts and street con artists than I’m comfortable with. But the air is fresh (no black boogers like London), the Parisians are for the most part friendly (contrary to popular opinion) and the pastries are delicious.
Taking a break from the travel posts, here is the first garment finished in 2017; a men’s double-breasted waistcoat circa 1937. This has been made on a sewing machine of no fixed abode, from Auckland to Algies Bay to Napier – the trusty domestic sewing machine has come into its own while we holiday and attempt to move cities.
Once more the Napier Art Deco Festival is on the horizon, this will be my fifth Deco Festival but the first with a dapper gentleman at my side – so the focus in this year’s lead up is on his wardrobe! (For posts on my previous years see Discovering Deco and Art Deco 2016 .) We had grand plans for a full three piece suit; unfortunately this seems less and less possible as we have not found a suitable summer weight suiting. However, in the remnants bin we found just enough for a waistcoat.
The original inspiration image for the suit (above left) is of unknown origin, google has attributed it to 1937. The cut and colour of the left hand suit caught my eye, but the main attraction really was the waistcoat – despite very little of it being visible.
Further research turned up another image showing a variety of waistcoats and this helped fill in some detail to the design.
Although these waistcoat designs are from 10 years earlier (1927) the style of #839 was still fashionable in 1937, although according to The Vintage Dancer by the 1930s “Most [waistcoats] were single breasted … but a few still choose the more formal double breasted waistcoat. They were not required to be worn and typically only were worn by older gentlemen or savvy dressers.”
Well we’re aiming for the savvy dresser rather than an older gentleman!
I started with a very basic Simplicity pattern (#2077) and adapted it, adding the collar and revere, four pockets (all real!) and reshaping the lower edge to the angled cut of the inspiration image.
It was a squeeze cutting the pieces from the 1 metre remnant, but despite this I was just able to pattern match the main seams and the result when pinned on the mannequin was quite fetching!
The fabric has a subtle check which made the fob pockets a challenge, and is a wee bit lightweight despite the multiple layers of interfacing applied, so there are definite improvements in mind for the next waistcoat – but nothing too major.
The first outing was today, tested on the dance floor at The Lindy Tops, and I managed a wee photo-shoot afterwards. The waistcoat certainly needs a bit more length when worn with modern trousers, but I’m looking forward to making a pair of super high-waisted 1930’s trousers and seeing the silhouette they create.
So, watch this space for more Art Deco era men’s wear!
There was no obvious sign marking the divide between England and Wales on the A55 from Chester, but the countryside grew greener, the flat fields grew curves and castles appeared on the hillsides; we were clearly in Wales.
Wales has a quantity of imposing castles, but these are not a testament to Welsh power; instead they are a reminder of English invasion and enforced rule. The string of Castles which we visited along the north-west coast from Conwy to Harlech were built by King Edward 1st of England in the late 13th century to retain control of Wales. Despite that, they are incredibly picturesque these days. The first we visited, Conwy, is just a small coastal town. The castle and its largely intact walls hug the wee township.
We were staying a couple of towns over, in a three hundred year old, crooked farmer’s cottage with low beams and even lower doors. The lane to the house was edged by tall earth banks topped by hedgerows full of honeysuckle flowers, wild roses and holly. Inside, no wall in the house is completely straight and no two stair depths are the same. According to our host very few of this style of home remain, the size and age are not valued and most are torn down or left to dereliction on account of their lack of windows and low ceilings. But hers is clearly loved, and has been in the family over 100 years. She thinks it a travesty that they are slowly vanishing from the landscape, and I agree; these places have so much charm.
Just down the road is an award winning pub – the White Lion Inn – which served a delicious meal and was bustling with locals. At 9pm a quiz began, we were not taking part and had intentionally sat at the back, but the tables around us were full of participants and the man bellowing out questions from the other end was clearly audible. He asked “who painted the Lady in Gold?’ “What is a corsair?” “Who is credited with the invention of the little black dress?’ before accidentally missing a question. This got the crowd going as they all haggled about how to fix the mistake!
On the walk home we chatted to some small black bulls through a farm gate. I had thought them young due to their size, but apparently these are in fact ‘Welsh Black’ famed for their tender meat and smaller than most cattle.
The following day we visited Gwydir Castle, somewhere I had wanted to visit for years after reading the book ‘Castles in the Air’ the story of its purchase and recovery from dereliction. This is not one of the imposing fortresses built to subdue the Welsh to English rule, and is not really even a castle, just a rather grand home. We arrived and rang a bell, a middle aged man opened the tiny door set into the larger gates and bid us enter. Stepping through the door we entered a courtyard filled with peacocks basking in the afternoon sunshine, the geometric box hedge garden was being slowly flattened by the lounging birds.
The temperature inside the house was chillier by far than outdoors, we put our coats back on as we explored inside. The rooms were lit by natural light from the windows, it was not bright; it was authentic. The furniture (some dating back to the 15th century) was not roped off; a solitary teasel was placed on the ancient chairs as a reminder to their fragility. To add to the feeling of authenticity, the doors croak in protest to opening, and bats still live inside the roof space. In some rooms small open fires burnt in cavernous fireplaces, only giving warmth if you were to climb in beside the flames. There is a priest hole tucked behind the main fireplace and a bedroom labelled the ‘ghost room’.Spiral stone stairs lead to the upper floor, each stair’s tread worn down in the centre by the centuries of feet. Upstairs the floor boards creak and the ceiling is high and beautifully arched.
The most famous aspect of the house is the wooden panelling of the dining room. In 1921 the estate was auctioned off and the wooden panelling and leather frieze of the dining room were bought by William Randolf Hearst and shipped to America. For decades the panelling sat in its original shipping crates, never opened. Hearst died and they were left to the New York Metropolitan Museum. The current owners of Gwydir managed to trace them and negotiate with the museum for their return to Gwydir. When those boxes were opened, it was the first time since 1921. The panelling has since been painstakingly put back together like a jigsaw puzzle of tiny carved pieces. The room is now complete with the wood panelling and leather frieze which runs around the room between the top of the wooden panels and the ceiling. It is not recognisable as leather though, being so richly decorated in silver and gold.
Gwydir was just as I had hoped, not a museum, but more real than any other castle I had visited. The floors creak, the doors groan, the fires are real, the rooms are dark, the wood and stone appear old. So many castles are either ruined, roofless husks of former grandeur, or completely restored and full of reproduction furniture, bright colours, gleaming floorboards, re-enactors, and spotlighting. By contrast Gwydir smells old, yet is still someone’s home. I never asked, but I assumed the man who let us in was the owner, and that the lady in gumboots and gloves spraying some mold in a dark corner of the courtyard was his wife. They are still battling away against frequent floods and searching other treasures lost in the 1921. It would be a cold and unforgiving place to live, but definitely worth the effort.
We left in a bit of a daze, and regained energy at the local tearooms, another low ceilinged building, this time covered in ivy. We took the last available table and I sat inside the large fireplace!
We continued on through Betws-y-Coed to Bethesda, through the remarkable scenery of the Snowdonia National Park. The clouds were low but occasionally they would part revealing brilliant green pasture or massive rocky peaks. At one point the clouds were seemingly pouring off and over hills, bright rays of sunshine battling through.
The next day dawned damp and grew wetter as we arrived in Caernarfon another Welsh town dominated by an English Castle. I imagine it would be a cute place on a nice day, but it lacked charm in the rain and the castle tour was also disappointingly mundane. We sought refuge in a busy café, a friendly local offered us a place at her table as there were none spare and warned us that the service was shambolic. That turned out to be an understatement, but it is for a wonderful reason: the café is run to provide jobs and training for young people with mental disabilities. At the door they advertised ‘suspended coffee’, thinking this was some strange form of brewing we enquired as to the meaning and discovered you could purchase food and drinks for yourself as well as ‘suspended’ meaning you paid for an item from the menu, the receipt was put on a notice board at the door and anyone in need could redeem it. After finding out these things the poor service was no bother at all.
Speaking of food, asking for pepper with a restaurant meal in Wales with a kiwi accent is a challenge, the best response we had was “is A4 ok?”
Our GPS struggled in Wales too, telling us to turn right into hedges and spelling out place names rather than attempting to pronounce them.
The next couple of days were spent in foggy rural solitude near Llaenalhearn climbing hills and cooking big dinners. Fog continued to hinder our journey south along the coast so we did not bother visiting Mount Snowdon but as we approached Harlech the clouds lifted and it turned into a brilliant day of hot sunshine!
Harlech is an adorable village sat halfway up the hillside, with big views out across the golf links to the distant sand dunes which shield the beach from view. The castle was once positioned on the sea’s edge, but the centuries have created a wide flat expanse of land in front which is now dotted with homes and the golf course. The Castle still dominates the village and the landscape, although its seaward gate is now landlocked.
Despite the heat of the day the castle was dripping wet. Each step I took up the narrow stone spiral staircase my jandals flicked more water up the back of my legs; clearly during rain the stairs turn into a spiral waterfall.
Back at the car I did some Mr Bean style changing into a proper summer dress and we headed for the beach. One thing we were learning is that Wales has a proliferation of pay and display car parks. Even here in a small village with a big beach, parking was not free.
The beach was busy, but due to its size the picnics were scattered far apart; patches of brilliant colour on an otherwise over exposed landscape of white and blue. The water appeared shallow for miles, but even in the sun warmed shallows it was cold. The air was so hot and still though, that I enjoyed an impromptu swim in water just over my knees.
It was in the late afternoon that we dragged ourselves away from Harlech, the perfect little town of castle, ice cream and beach. That night we stayed in yet another ancient farmhouse, chickens met us in the yard and in my bare feet I dodged the chicken poo. Inside, we found ourselves on the cold, stone flagged floor of a 500 year old kitchen. The ceiling had low black beams and an enormous open fireplace, sat next to it was a box of baby chicks and ducklings happily twittering away.
The day dawned warm and grew hotter as we headed for Aberystwyth, fast becoming apparent that this was no average Welsh summers day, but what would be the hottest day of the year. The surf lifesaver signs proudly proclaimed air temperature of 31 degrees, water temperature 15, and the town basked in a heat haze. There are virtually no trees in Aberystwyth but we clung to the scarce patches of shade provided by pastel painted Georgian terrace houses, as we explored from the castle ruins to the pier and along the waterfront. It was like a day in the Mediterranean had got lost and ended up in Wales; we ate at a Greek restaurant, fanning ourselves with menus and drinking copious quantities of iced water, had multiple ice creams and multiple swims.
Early in the afternoon we’d had enough of Aberystwyth in the heat and instead got into our superheated car in our togs. I promptly fell asleep and only awoke when we arrived in Cardigan. We stayed not far from town in a small place named Eglwyswrw (pretend all the ‘w’s are ‘u’s) in a handmade shepherds hut. It was utterly adorable; even the window latches were handmade from string and wood. The kitchen was a separate rustic building made from curly oak branches, ladles and pans hung like wind chimes and we cooked on a coal BBQ in the fresh evening of a scorching day. We had a delicious late dinner of slightly burnt everything, followed by raspberries from our host’s garden!
From Egwyswrw we left the coast and headed inland on ‘A’ roads to Merthyr Tidfil. We had booked two nights there as it was near the Brecon Beacons National Park, but that was not our best decision. The town centre was filled with endless shop fronts of slowly dying discount stores and the high-street had more litter than people. I felt cheated; we had left the idyllic rural coast for this depressing, downtrodden place. Even more disappointing; the Brecon Beacons appeared barely more than rolling hills. Fortunately our Airbnb host made up for the disappointment by having copious character! She explained that during her lifetime Merthyr Tidfil has changed from an area thriving, to what it is today after the mines and the Hoover factory closed. Her enthusiasm and bossiness kept us entertained for the duration of our stay, and it wasn’t long before we realised that the pint of orange juice she carried around was not as innocent as it seemed (gin!?)
Despite immediate appearances Merthyr Tidfil made a nice end to our experience of Wales, our host tried to teach us a little Welsh and we enjoyed living in a beautifully restored miner’s cottage. Our host showed us photos of the building when she purchased it with the kitchen roofless and the stone walls crumbling, and it was good to know that even in this sad town there are still people who care for it.
After Orkney it was a comparatively hasty journey south, we headed first to Dunnet Head, the most Northerly point of Mainland Britain. It was strange to visit Dunnet Head after Orkney, as if we had stolen Dunnet Heads thunder by previously visiting a point further north. The day was bright and gusty and the heather was beginning to come out along with bright little orchid flowers.
The night’s destination was Tain, and we visited the Rockrose Gin Distillery, the Castle of Old Wick and Pultney Distillery along the way. The scenery changed greatly in that time, in contrast to the tree-less fields of Orkney and the tussocky fields around Dunnet, Tain was Paradise. We hadn’t realised how much we missed Trees!
In Tain we stayed with a lovely Emma Thompson doppelganger. She was fiercely opinionated about the recent Brexit vote results. She explained how a year on from the referendum of Scottish Independence there were still friendships lost through opposing opinions, but now, given the choice between the EU and UK her vote would be to leave the UK and stay in the EU, a “unity is strength” sentiment. This was a perspective I have since heard again, from a drunk old Scots accountant in a pub who was “European FIRRRST, Scottish SECOND and British THIRRRD” in his allegiances. It was welcome to have discussions with voters so passionate. By contrast we had sat in a café on Orkney and watched the results unfurl with great surprise and trepidation, but the rest of the café customers seemed disinterested.
The drive further south the following day was through pretty coastal farmland dotted with privately owned castles and lush estates. But the road was big and boring.
Fort George was our tourist destination for the day, fortified walls run 1 mile around the grounds of this military garrison still in use by the army today. The walls are topped by cannon and the view from them is spectacular – looking out over the Moray Firth we saw a pod of bottlenose dolphins!
The Fort was built to defend the government against any potential Jacobite uprisings after the failed 1745 rebellion which had culminated in the Battle of Culloden just a few miles away. There’s a historical interpreter who did a wee talk and show of weapons, but the maximum impact is really just from the scale of the place, by wandering around the multitude of barracks and offices you get an idea of the overwhelming force the crown put in place to tame the rebellious Scots.
Our home for the next couple of days was near Glenlivet, a small settlement with a very large whisky distillery of the same name. Glenlivet has something of a monopoly on the American market for Scotch – so its factory is appropriately on a grand scale. Just standing outside the barrel storehouse (where the whisky is left to mature) the smell was strong and sweet.
From Glenlivet we visited two castles and a falconry:
Balvenie Castle has very little left; in fact our strongest memory of this castle was being chased around the crumbling remains of the kitchen by an irate oyster catcher which was dive bombing us to protect its wall top nest.
Huntly was much more impressive, especially in the atmospheric torrential rain which greeted our arrival there. The chap manning the ticket booth took pity on me in my insubstantial ‘wet weather woolly hat’ and lent me a Walkers Shortbread umbrella. It was toting this big brolly that we pranced into the grand chambers of the castle – these are also open to the weather with streams of water cascading through the planks of a deck style floor above. The castle was six floors of dripping, carved rock. Ornate fireplaces stood in rooms which lacked both windowpanes and roofs. Below the castle were big dry cellars and the remains of a moat.
Between the two castles is a Falconry Centre, it was not immediately a nice place to visit as the birds all seemed bored and twitchy (I would be too were I tied to a perch all day). But as the demonstration got going and birds were given a chance to fly my distaste dwindled, the handler clearly loved and cared for the birds. We were shown a falcon which swooped and wiggled its tail, landing with deft precision on the falconers gloved hand. When the man asked who wanted to wear the glove and be a falcon perch I leapt at the chance! The bird was surprisingly light and I may as well have been a post for all it cared, as its attention was not on me but fixed on the falconer and his pieces of baby chicken.
The next bird was an eagle owl which had been hand raised and was fearless and friendly, so for the first time I was able to pat and hold an eagle owl, it didn’t seem to mind my ruffling its feathers. I even stroked the tufted ‘ears’ atop its head!
The star of the show though, was Bob the deer; as an uncooperative falcon sat obstinately on a fencepost, Bob wandered over and gave the small audience moist kisses and offered his velvet antlers for scratching.
The last stop before returning the rental car was Stirling Castle. The castle has had a great deal of work done to it in recent times, while this is wonderful as it means everything is now well preserved for future generations, it rather lacks any fodder for the imagination. Everything is a little too clean and new in appearance. But, do the guided tour and suddenly the history of the place takes centre stage, the turbulent past is thrilling and the tour guide was not just knowledgeable but a quick wit. We learnt about the kings and heroes, but also the restoration of the buildings after they had been used as army barracks. The Great Hall’s exterior is now painted in authentic ‘Kings Gold’ a colour which stands out against the surrounding sombre stone architecture of Stirling.
When we dropped off the car back in Glasgow we had completed 1700 miles (2735km) over 25 days.
Before leaving Scotland we had a few days in Edinburgh – my favourite city! We arrived to rain, grey skies and despite the early hour it was very close to dark. There were homeless people sat in puddles, the shops seemed run down and unattractively littered with torn posters and advertising. I had a moment of self-doubt – was this really the great city I remembered? However, further from Haymarket Station the suburbs changed and by the time we arrived at our accommodation (a lovely Georgian flat with thistles on the wall paper) I was convinced of Edinburgh’s charm again.
I didn’t even know Edinburgh had a canal, but over the next few days we came to know it very well as it was our quickest route to the old town. It was a peaceful sanctuary through the central suburbs and has on it a river boat café which possibly serves the best coffee in Edinburgh. The canal edge is also a very popular cycle path, each day we checked the cyclist counter and it was in the hundreds by mid-morning. We even saw a group of tandem riders all wearing matching knee-high tartan socks!
At the end of the canal is the modern city which in turn leads to Grassmarket and here the glorious view of the Castle is a backdrop to everything. It rises above the rest of the city crouched atop the rocky cliffs and gazes down the royal mile, still owning the town. Unless you have a particular interest in regimental history, or feel the need to see the Scottish crown jewels, it is not worth paying entry as the view from either the Grassmarket or Princes Street is the castles best angle.
The better castle for exploring is Craigmillar, known as ‘Edinburgh’s Other Castle’, it is as exciting to explore as Huntly. Despite being a ruin there are plenty of spiral staircases and nooks, some rooms are roofless while others even have window panes! The sun was shining and despite the scattered visitors it felt as though the castle was ours alone.
We happened to be in Edinburgh for the celebrations of the opening of the 5th Session of Scottish Parliament, down by Holyrood Palace were crowds watching Highland dancing girls perform. The crowd seemed waiting and expectant. Nearby were the sad remains of a pro Scottish independence ‘Vote YES’ camp with banners saying ‘End London Rule’.
The day was sunny so we left the festivities behind and trailed up Arthur’s Seat. The gentle green slopes at the foot change to steep bare rock at the top. During the climb the city is obscured by the surrounding hillside, it is at the top that the whole vista suddenly appears in front of you; the Castle dwarfed when viewed from this height, blends into the city.
These are the memories we have of Scotland; grand views, ancient castles and wild scenery. But while in Scotland there are also some tastes which are not to be missed –for a moment forget about the grand scenery and history, turn instead to Scotland’s incredible flavours; surprisingly the most ‘Scottish’ combination seems to be ginger and rhubarb (despite neither being a native of Scotland). There are of course also whisky and haggis, but Gin and vegetarian haggis seem to be gaining popularity too. Here are some of my personal favourites:
Vegetarian Haggis: You don’t need to be vegetarian to enjoy this, I like traditional meaty haggis too – but the vegetarian one is possibly a winner! It is served in most pubs (particularly in cities) and is best with whisky sauce.
Crowdie: a tasty Scottish version of cream cheese, a little harder to find on menus, but very good on a roast potato!
Edinburgh Rhubarb and Ginger infused Gin liqueur: all the best flavours!
Wooleys of Arran Oatcakes: We’ve tried a lot of oatcakes, these are the thickest and most satisfying.
Crabbies Ginger Beer: available back home too – but made in Edinburgh!
Mackays Rhubarb and ginger preserve: delicious on toast.
Mackies of Scotland Haggis and cracked black pepper potato crisps: I checked and the locals also enjoy these (I was concerned they were just a tourist novelty!)
Ginger Grouse Alcoholic Ginger Beer: surprisingly good and very warming drink containing Famous Grouse whisky.
Of course I cannot recommend Scottish brands without digressing and also recommending a visit to:
Walker Slater: High end tailored wool clothing, in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket there are separate menswear and ladies wear stores. I was particularly enamoured with the ladies store as it is so rare to find elegantly tailored ladies coats equal to mens. I didnt buy anything, but as a designer it is an absolute treasure trove of ideas and a thrill to try things on!
And with that, we left Scotland (but don’t worry it wasn’t long before our return).
The drive north and east from Ullapool to the Orkney ferry at Scrabster took us through a changing landscape. From a land of wild and barren mountains we found ourselves in rolling farmland of equally impressive proportions. The tiny farmhouses dotted about gave the vast vistas scale. We spotted peat being cut and left to dry near the roadside, presumably to be used for fuel, maybe even in whisky making.
After learning from our host in Ullapool that bracken is not a native to the Highlands, but in fact a noxious invader (harbouring ticks, smothering hillsides, inedible to farm animals) we looked at the patches of brilliant green very differently. Spreading like poison up dark heather covered hillsides, their dense foliage changing the landscape, garish against the sombre native colours.
The road along the north coast is single track and there is no fence between the fields and the road. Sheep and lambs wander along freely, able to cross the road at will and lounge about on the shoulder. The field boundaries are marked by cattle grids and fortunately the fields are enormous so these are far apart. For miles there were lochs and mountains and farms, no towns. Places had strange names, we passed Bad Call Bay, and further around came upon a town named Tongue. There the roads became two lanes and had painted edges!
At Scrabster we boarded a large and comfortable ferry, the sea was a calm expanse. I stood wrapped up outside and watched the Old Man of Hoy (a famous Orcadian rock formation) drift past. Fishing boats dotted the coast like toys beside the enormous cliffs.
We landed in Stromness (which seems like a port with a town attached – Kirkwall definitely has more life) and immediately drove to St Margaret’s Hope where we were staying. The short drive took us through most of the Orkney Mainland and onto the island of South Ronaldsay. Orkney seemed to have far more luscious farmland than the Highlands; rolling hills of vivid green dotted with more sheep per acre than the sparse highlands is capable of sustaining. There were signs for a craft trail and a feeling of thriving community. These things surprised me – I had imagined a rustic backwater, virtually forgotten by the modern world. But instead we were in a thriving tourist centre, with busier roads than the Highlands, and a community which looks to the future despite having so many reminders of the past (standing stones etc).
The blustery Isle that I had been expecting failed to materialise the following day, instead we were greeted with impossibly blue skies and heat! We drove to Kirkwall past fields full of buttercups, over the Churchill barriers constructed by Italian POWs to protect the Scapa Flow from enemy submarines. Pieces of wrecked ship littered the shallow waters. To our right, and visible almost all the way around to Stromness, was a large oil rig, conspicuous against the clean, clear waters. It hovered like some great metal beast. In a land seemingly unchanged in 5000 years it was out of place.
On Kirkwall high street every second shop was a local Jewellers – this seems to be big business in Orkney! Just a short walk from the High Street are the Bishops and Earls Palaces. The Earls Palace is the perfect ruin. Enough remains to understand the grandeur and size of the palace, but it is also clearly old – not a perfectly restored place, but somewhere that invites imagination. The fireplaces were massive, even a tall bloke can comfortably stand in one without ducking!
The Bishops palace was less complete, but one tower remained and from the top there were glorious views over Kirkwall and the surrounding farmland.
Just outside Kirkwall, sitting unobtrusively in a field is Cuween Hill Cairn. Owned by Historic Scotland but unstaffed, the 4500 year old burial mound is free to explore. A wooden box like a letterbox holds a torch (with charged batteries!) for lighting the dark interior. The burial chamber is accessed down a narrow, low passage and inside is cool and damp. The chamber is surprisingly spacious, room to stand after crouching and shuffling in the passage. As our eyes adjusted we could see alcoves which would have held the grave goods. I crawled into one; it was a strange feeling sitting in the dark in what had been the last resting place of an ancient people.
The landscape is riddled with ancient monuments; Cuween Hill is unremarkable on Orkney. I heard stories of standing stones being used to hold up clotheslines, so numerous are they. But there are still places which even in the rich picking of Orkney stand out from the rest, the most famous standing stones are the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. Both are free, and both are definitely worth a visit. They stand very near to each other and mark what was clearly an important Neolithic site; the remains of a settlement of similar age to the stones sits in a nearby paddock (the Barnhouse Settlement).
But more impressive by far are two other sites, Maeshowe Neolithic Chambered Cairn and Scara Brae Village. The standing stones are large and impressive edifices, but the Cairn and village have a more human interest and certainly provide a more personal perspective on the ancient people who once lived here.
Maeshowe is essentially a larger version of the Cuween Hill Burial Cairn, but is accessible by tour only (pre-booking essential in busy months). But what really sets this one apart is not just the size, but the Viking graffiti! According to our guide, in the 12th Century one hundred Vikings broke into the cairn of Maeshowe, entering by removing the capstone roof and clambering in from the top. Supposedly they would have been familiar with the shape of burial cairns as they are also scattered through Scandinavia – so would have known how to get in. For three days these hundred Vikings sheltered in Maeshowe from a blizzard and passed time by graffiti-ing the walls with runes. The hilarious thing is how inanely the runes translate, for example:
‘These runes were written up high’
‘These runes were written with an axe’
(The Viking equivalent of) ‘Call Ingerbjorg for a good time’
Another had clearly started writing thinking he was taller than in reality, so his text written up the wall trailed around a 90° corner and continued at the maximum height his arm could stretch.
The guide was very entertaining, we learnt how the Vikings, having weathered the storm left the cairn, which now roofless filled with debris and soil over the centuries. Then in 1861 a dreadful archaeologist named James Farrer conducted an excavation. He and his team also entered through the roof and in our guides words “made more of a mess than one hundred Vikings” as they cleared the cairn of the built up debris using pick axes and took great chunks out of the walls in the process. Farrer made several discoveries including bone fragments, but when he packed up and headed back to London, he accidentally left all the finds on the train and they were never seen again. The cairn was once more open to the elements and it was a local farmer who took initiative and built a new roof for it, so it is thanks to the farmer that the cairn and its runic carvings are preserved and visible.
Orkney has some brilliant place names: on our third day we drove through Twatt and The Loons on our way to the most famous of Orkney’s historic sites; Scara Brae. The 5000 year old village on the edge of a wild beach with a blowing gale is beautifully presented. Before visiting the real Scara Brae you pass through a reproduction Scara Brae house. This one is built to portray how the houses would have looked with roof and furnishings. The thing which is most striking is how identifiable everything is; it feels like a home. The beds are draped in furs, shelves filled with trinkets and everything is focused around a central hearth. The house consists of one room entered through a stone passage and even has closable stone doors – details which are preserved in the original village!
It is a short walk to the archaeological site. Along the side of the path are stone markers interspersed accurately to take you back in time, we passed the American Independence, the completion of the Great Wall of China, the birth of Christ, the building of the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. It really did illustrate just how ancient this village is.
Scara Brae was discovered in the mid-19th century when a nasty storm ripped the earth off the top of some mysterious mounds near the beach known as Skerrabra. The storm revealed the most complete Stone Age village yet discovered. The houses are connected by corridors to each other but all corridors have stone doors to allow privacy of the occupants. The beds, hearths, shelves and even pots and jewellery are all still in position.
Scara Brae was properly excavated and presented to the public in the 1920s and appears to have been left more or less untouched since then. It is simply but thoughtfully displayed; a path meanders along the edge of the village at ground level, but as the modern ground level is higher than that of the Stone Age (and the houses were probably dug into mounds) you are essentially walking above the homes and as they are roofless it is easy to see in. The village of Scara Brae is incredible, not for its size or grandeur, but specifically because it is on such a human scale and such intimate glimpses of the distant past are so rare. Previously if I thought of Stone Age humans living 5000 years ago I would not have pictured something so recognisably ‘home’. These weren’t the mystical, unknowable stone circles; these were homes of the average Stone Age ‘Joe Blogs’.
The houses are a uniform size and layout, none show greater wealth or ostentation – suggesting this was a society of equals. There is no obvious building of power or religion, aside from the homes there is only one other building, identified as a workshop.
Included in entry to Scara Brae is the Mansion of Skaill House. This was home to the man who discovered Skara Brae after the storm, William Watt, local Laird. The house is worth a visit but aside from some spectacularly hideous pink ‘50s décor in one of the bathrooms is a fairly standard stately home. There’s an impressive collection of P.G. Wodehouse in the library and a secret room behind a bookshelf, but Scara Brae really takes the cake.
In Kirkwall is a famous pub and Music venue, The Reel, there we sampled some rather tasty local whisky (Highland Park) and enjoyed the folk music open night. Local musicians drifted in and joined those already playing, there were violins, guitar and banjo and some good foot tapping songs. The bar quickly filled with spectators, but the busier it got the more obvious it became that the crowd was mainly made up of tourists. While the musicians played in an inclusive manner, the crowd sat still with phone cameras out and seemed to suck the soul from the music. But perhaps I was just tired.
As we drove back to St Margaret’s Hope in the dusk a thick fog began rolling in from the sea, wispy at first but before long all trace of the brilliant sunset was lost in the solid ghostly white.
And that rather sums up our week in Orkney, it is a land of mood-swings and opposites; bright, hot sun or dark, wet fog. Ancient history sits alongside vibrant thriving culture, and the brisk sea air refuses to let anything grow stale.