Hardy’s Cottage: 1993


I bought this tea towel in a National Trust Shop, in Dorchester, having just visited Thomas Hardy’s Cottage in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset.  It is a classic, traditional  National Trust tea towel: pure linen with a detailed picture of a particular property owned by them, in this case the cottage where Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 and where he lived for the first 34 years of his life.  The artist was Lee Parry, known for her detailed drawings which so accurately reflect the house; when I look at the tea towel, it is exactly as I remember – a cob and thatch cottage, built in 1800, fronted by  a real cottage garden.  It is a beautiful picture.

I know that today that Hardy’s Cottage is probably slightly different because there are regular opening hours and there is a Visitor Centre close by.  When I visited, the opening hours were very restricted and there were no amenities.  I think I prefer to remember Hardy’s Cottage as it was in 1993.  Thomas Hardy was always one of my favourite authors and poets; I have great memories of English lessons at St Benedicts School with Philip Lawrence in his first year of teaching (he later became a Headmaster of a London school where one of his pupils stabbed, and murdered, him). He instilled in me a real love of Thomas Hardy, especially the poem ‘Darkling Thrush’, the words of which I can still recite to this day: “An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small/In blast-beruffled plume,/Had chosen thus to fling his soul/Upon the growing gloom”.  I can picture the little bird in blast-beruffled plume, three words conjuring up such a picture.

Thomas Hardy wrote both ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ and ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ in this cottage. And I can imagine that. It is not a typical National Trust property, no fancy fireplaces or treasures from abroad, just a cottage that reflects his writing.  In ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, there is a classic line where Hardy writes “And at home by the fire, whenever you look up there I shall be – and whenever I look up there will be you”; and this is the setting for such a line, one of my favourites. Thomas Hardy was rather complex and possibly ‘completely screwed up’ but I can imagine him here.  John and I visited because I really wanted to see the home Thomas Hardy was brought up in and visit various places in the locality that inspired his books or where he took his walks, where he met his wife, churches he visited.  I loved the ‘freedom’ and ‘randomness’ of the garden, something that I have always aspired to achieve but never managed it.  This tea towel is a real favourite because of its simplicity and accuracy of design and is also excellent at wiping up!`

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William Wallace Tea Towel: 2016


What a great tea towel from Erica Sturla, a graphic designer and illustrator, who now works with polymer clay and acrylics to create scenes with colourful three-dimensional characters, set against painted canvas backgrounds.  You can see that William Wallace is a three-dimensional character (but not much background on this tea towel).  “I just love working in this medium, creating the figures brings instant humour, colour and movement to my subjects while painting the backgrounds demands a more studied approach – I love the contrast between the two techniques”.  That humour comes with the ‘strap line’ “Be brave…… its just a wee pile of dishes”.  William Wallace was a key figure in Scottish history, about which there is little detail, who led an army against the English, winning the Battle of Stirling in 1296 and who was finally found guilty of treason in London, stripped naked, pulled behind a horse through the streets of London before being hung till he nearly died, taken down disembowelled with his bowels burned before him then quartered and beheaded, his head covered in tar and displayed on railings.  Just a little something to think about while doing the wiping up with this 100% cotton tea towel, which has a delightful hook to hang it up by.

So how did I come by this tea towel?  This year has really been messed up with holidays; I had everything planned up to the end of the year.  Then on 6 August, Liz dramatically fell and broke her upper arm, a displaced fracture, full arm cast, so no driving.  Driving was crucial to our holiday plans.  While Liz was adapting to her new found situation, you can go ‘stir crazy’ with no prospect of a holiday.  At a ‘gathering’ for my birthday, Liz K, Lynn and Helen talked about whether a car engine would deteriorate, or be adversely affected, by not being driven for several months.  Did the car really need to be driven regularly, the engine turned over? Or was that out-of-date information relating to much older cars?  Helen offered to take Liz out for the day, using her car, an offer that was gratefully accepted. We went out for tea in Leicester and had a trip to Staunton Harold, followed by fish and chips.  It was during these trips that Lynn and Helen offered to take us on holiday, driving Liz’s car; Helen really did like driving the automatic Volvo!!!!  How about a week in Edinburgh, to replace the first holiday that was cancelled? No hanging about, it was all agreed with two conditions – a ground floor apartment and two bathrooms.  Liz did the booking.  It was all very exciting, all the planning but I’m always the pessimist, I can always think of potential problems.  What happens if we didn’t get on? What happens if we don’t agree about things and fall out? What happens if we don’t want to do the same things? What happens if we argue? What happens if we end up not talking to each other?  I’ve known Lynn for nearly twenty years; I didn’t want to ruin the friendship (because I can be a ‘grumpy so and so’).  A week’s holiday always seems too short but a week with people you have fallen out with could seem like a lifetime.  I am just a born worrier but I shouldn’t have.  All went well.

We agreed on a couple of things to do – the Botanic Lights at Edinburgh Botanic Gardens which started at 6pm and was a guided walk through lighted trees, with staged light shows; a trip to the Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies; a meal at Valvona and Crolla; a trip to Aberdeen with a fish and chip supper at Stonehaven; a bus trip to Portobello and Musselburgh.  But we also agreed to go our separate ways on occasions, meeting up for a cup of tea or a meal. Lynn and Helen loved walking, Liz and I like travelling by bus. I think we achieved a great balance; I don’t know why I worried because one of the great memories of this holiday was the fact that I laughed so much, sometimes uncontrollably.  That makes a good holiday for me.

On the first day, Lynn and Helen walked into Edinburgh and we went by bus.  We agreed to meet up at Eteaket for a cup of tea.  And, WOW, they had bought me a tea towel; my first holiday tea towel, this tea towel.  Now, I know they think someone who collects tea towels is a ‘bit off the wall’; but to write about them as well? Just crazy.  So, it was very ‘special’ that they had bought me a tea towel, especially one as good as this.  They were nearly as excited as I was.  In fact, this was when Helen offered to ‘model’ the tea towel for the Blog photograph.    Actually, the term ‘model’ is interesting in this context.  Helen was wearing beige cord trousers when I took the photograph; what I hadn’t realised was that the light and shade in the lounge made it look as if Helen was not wearing trousers, a bit like a shot from the Calender Girls.  I want to reassure all Readers that Helen was fully clothed at all times during the photo shoot.  When I saw the photo I literally cried with laughter, as did Helen, and we agreed not to change the photograph.

This tea towel now has so many memories for me; as I use it, I know the wiping up will take a very long time – a great holiday in Scotland, all my fears about going on holiday with other people dispelled, some great meals in and out, beautiful scenery, exciting opportunities, a good laugh, great weather and a solid friendship. Thank you Lynn and Helen!!!

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The Original Suffolk Country Tea Cloth: 1986


If you go into any good chinaware store, you are likely to find the iconic terracotta Original Suffolk Pottery, made by the Henry Watson family company, through six generations.  You are unlikely to find the whole range because the range is so extensive.  John was a great cook; he liked good quality kitchen equipment; he liked nice china but was never keen on having full sets of anything.  He felt there was so much lovely pottery, china, crockery, glassware etc out there, so why would you want to confine yourself to everything looking the same?  Because he did so much cooking, John liked to have a wide repetoire of herbs and spices to hand.  He had two sets of shelves for his spice and herb jars, holding up to 60 jars.  He particularly liked the Suffolk Terracotta range, with the little domed lids.  John believed that keeping herbs and spices in glass jars was wrong because the light diminished the quality of them thus the Terracotta range was ideal for his purposes.

When John and I went on holiday to Norfolk, in 1986, we had the opportunity to visit the Henry Watson pottery with their tiny (at that time) shop.  John was in pottery heaven; he bought four spice jars that he was unable to get locally and so was very chuffed.  And I found this tea towel! I love the fact that this tea towel is totally terracotta in colour with the amazing phrase “Ideal for Use at Home or on Safari”.    I can’t imagine using this on safari but I am prepared to give it a go, if someone would treat me!  Although John died 20 years ago today, I still have most of his terracotta herb and spice jars; he was certainly proved right, that they are excellent quality, as is the tea towel.

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Shieldaig, Wester Ross: 1999


I am surprised how long ago it is since I blogged about a ‘typical’ touristy tea towel, and a tea towel with age. It’s good to be reminded about how my collection of tea towels came about, just being bought to remind me of places that I have visited.  In 1999, I was on holiday in the North West Highlands of Scotland; the weather was beautiful, we were staying in a very remote area.  To get from one place to another you could drive many, many miles without seeing another car, certainly no petrol station, nor another person or even a settlement and definitely no shop but there were a lot of sheep.  One day we were meandering along the coast of Wester Ross, when we suddenly came upon Shieldaig.  It was a bit like ‘Brigadoon’, seeing a small Scottish village arise unexpectedly out of nowhere; we weren’t expecting it.  For such a small community, of about 80 people, there was a hotel/pub, shop, community centre.  We stopped for a cup of coffee (I drank coffee in those days) in the hotel; afterwards, as we wandered past the shop, I saw this tea towel in the window. ‘That’s for me’ I said; it has been a holiday of few tea towels so finding one in such a remote place was a sheer delight.

Shieldaig is a strange place in that it can pinpoint the exact date that it was founded – in 1800.  It can do that because it was established as a training base for seaman who were going to be involved in the Napoleonic Wars; fir trees were planted on the small island in Loch Shieldaig, just off the coast, so that they could be cut for sailing masts.  Once Napoleon was exiled to the Isle of Elba in 1814, the need for Shieldaig as a training base, and source of wood, no longer existed and it became a successful fishing village (After all, ‘Shieldaig’ means Loch of the Herring in Viking).  The island is now protected by the National Trust for Scotland, as a nature reserve.

I love this tea towel because of the detail in it; I can always fall for a map.  It shows the small island with the fir trees; it lists the hills and mountains of Torridon with a picture of the hill-walker; there is a directional compass;  the longitude and latitude is marked on it; I like the shading of the coastline; I like the fact that it is in black and white with just a small amount of yellow to highlight the name; I like the way that coastline is drawn, showing how difficult it is to go from one place to another.  ‘As the crow flies’ just does not apply to Wester Ross and Torridon.  When I look at it, I remember that cup of coffee and how welcome it was, being so unexpected.

A few weeks ago I was looking at the Ettrick Valley website (the people who produce tea towels with a Scottish theme) and saw my Shieldaig tea towel in the background display; it wasn’t on sale.  I contacted Bryan Hoggan to ask him about this and he confirmed that Ettrick Valley had designed and printed this tea towel more than 23 years ago, before he owned the firm.  I like to know the history of my tea towels; it was a special design for Shieldaig Stores. I haven’t yet been able to track down the artist, Ric Singerton, but maybe one day I will; it will give me something to think about while wiping up.

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The Proclaimers: 2016


I have to admit that this tea towel is a bit like cheating: I loved it, I bought it but I bought it for Rob and so I have given it away.  It was too good to miss out on Blogging about it.  Maybe one day in the future, I will have one of my own.  In the meantime, I will take pleasure from Rob’s tea towel.

This tea towel is by the graphic designer Iain McIntosh (who illustrates all the Alistair McCall Smith books).  He is, without doubt, one of my favourite tea towel designers.  I love his work in black and white, with clear sharp lines; they are not touristy tea towels but works of art, to be loved and admired (as well as for doing the wiping up).  I was in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago, walking past Context Interiors on Victoria Street.  This is a shop that stocks a range of Iain McIntosh’s tea towels, as well as a whole load of quirkey gifts.  I saw the Proclaimers pinned on the wall and thought “That is a tea towel for Rob”.  But I struggled, tried to resist; Rob isn’t a tea towel collector and he has a dishwasher which limits the need for many tea towels.  Maybe I should buy it for myself? No, my first thought was that it was a ‘Rob Tea Towel’; stick to your first thoughts, Barbara.  So I bought it but I knew I had to write a Blog about it, even though I didn’t technically own it.  This was the tricky part.  Context Interiors have this wonderful way of presenting tea towels: they are wrapped in a brown paper ‘sleeve’ with their label on it.  Very tasteful.  But the trick was going to be removing the tea towel from the sleeve, photographing it and then reinserting the tea towel, carefully folded, back into the sleeve.  This depended on remembering how they folded it.  It was very intricate, in that the ends were folded in on themselves.  It was important not to rip the paper otherwise Rob would have known that I had been ‘playing’ with his tea towel already.

So what was the link with Rob and the Proclaimers? Of course, that is a long story.  For me, the 80s music passed me by (as did the 90s).  I am not sure why.  But I had never heard of the Proclaimers; I didn’t know their music until 2014 and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.  That is when I first heard ‘500 Miles’ and I fell in love with it.  ‘500 Miles’ was the song they played when anyone from Scotland won a Gold Medal but, by the end of the Games, people like Usain Bolt had also adopted it.  I downloaded ‘500 Miles’ and listened to it continuously for about two weeks.  After that I bought some CDs in order to broaden my education and I just loved them.  I loved the acoustic/folk sound of their music; I loved the way their politics are played out in their songs; I loved the strong Scottish accents (and dialects) which gave greater meaning to their songs; I loved the humour; I just loved the story-telling.  If I was to choose a favourite song it would have to be ‘500 Miles’, because of that association with the Commonwealth Games, that sense of achievement and celebration.  But I also love ‘Scotland’s Story’; this is so appropriate when I consider Brexit and the terrible racist views that emerged during the campaign and have blighted people’s lives ever since and the way that is replicated in America during Donald Trump’s victory.  Something like ‘What School?’ is a great piece of observation about how religion, politics, class and nationality all link together in a, sometimes, heinous way.  I like to try and guess who they were talking about in ‘In Recognition’, a poignant song about the Honour’s List, child abuse, dodgy politicians etc. As I hear it again, more and more names come to mind.  Very talented song writers.

My excitement about ‘discovering’ the Proclaimers came to a head when I found out that they were on tour, around Britain, during December 2015.  Liz and I booked tickets for their show in Nottingham. This was going to be great.  The best laid plans of mice and men…….. On 9 December Liz’s Dad had a massive stroke and wasn’t expected to live.  Her mother was distraught.  Liz spent a lot of time with them both and realised that we were not going to be able to see the show.  A small price to pay for the fact that her Dad was still alive.  While sitting in hospital waiting rooms, we mentioned to Rob about the Nottingham  concert.  He said that he and Lyn had seen the Proclaimers in concert, earlier in the year, and that they were magnificent; more than two hours of continuous songs, great performers.  He raved about it.  He then asked if we’d seen the film “Sunshine Over Leith” which was based around the music of the Proclaimers.  No, we hadn’t but contacted Mr Amazon and ordered a copy.  I remember watching it one night just before Christmas and thinking that we would have to go and see the Proclaimers sometime, when this nightmare was over.  We spent Christmas with Lyn and Rob talking about the Proclaimers and ‘Sunshine Over Leith’; it took our minds off Liz’s Dad’s state of health.  While Liz was dabbling on her Mac over Christmas, she discovered that the Proclaimers had resumed their British tour in 2016 and were appearing at Northampton in June.  Excited, we told Rob about this and our plan to book and he said he’d really like to see them again.  An adventure unfolded.  We arranged to meet in Northampton in June, have a look around Charles Rennie McIntosh’s only house he designed in England, followed by ‘formal’ Afternoon Tea and then go to the concert. A wonderful day out.

This tea towel is important to me because it reminds me that while plans may go awry, there is always light at the end of the tunnel (See Tea Towel Blog about Murphy’s Law dated 27/4/16); that you cannot give up hope, or stop planning for the future.  It reminds me of that great Saturday in June 2016 in Northampton, looking at CRM’s house and having Afternoon Tea and that the Proclaimers were definitely worth waiting for and I would go and see them again at the drop of a hat (and in the meantime I’ve watched ‘Sunshine Over Leith’ on a number of occasions). I will always remember that enthusiasm Rob also has for the Proclaimers, which took our minds off the stresses of Christmas 2015.  And finally, Iain McIntosh offers an excellent example of how a tea towel can be a ‘blank canvas’ for a portrait, one as good as this one of the Proclaimers.

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The Falkirk Wheel: 2016


When I visited the Falkirk Wheel last year, I was fascinated and thought their tea towel was brilliant. It captured the beauty and artistry of the Wheel, as a piece of technology and mechanical engineering but also as a piece of landscape art (See Tea Towel Blog dated 27/10/16).  I went back a couple of weeks ago, having persuaded Lynn and Helen that this was something they wanted to do.  I had no intention of buying a tea towel because I already had one. I didn’t take into account the fact that they might have a new one, one I didn’t have.  I love a tea towel that informs, gives you something to think about, could be useful in a Pub Quiz and this one fits the bill nicely.  It reflects one wall in the Visitors Centre with all these fascinating facts.

One of the most frequently asked questions must be: “So how does the Falkirk Wheel work?”  If you go on the Falkirk Wheel, the Guide will tell you.  Whether you actually understand, if you do not have a background in mechanical engineering, is another matter!  Helen asked me that very question.  I was able to talk about Archimedes Principle of Water Displacement, obvious really, but that wasn’t the answer Helen wanted.  The answer is that it is powered by the energy of 8 electric kettles, moving the Wheel 180 degrees in 4 minutes, carrying loads of up to the weight of 100 elephants, moving up to 8 boats 35 metres high and held together by 14,868 bolts. “Yes” says Helen, “But how does it work?”.  I tried with the fact that it is the only one in the world. “Yes” says Helen “but how does it work?”.  “If you don’t understand it, read Archimedes and Wikipedia!” says I.  It’s a bit like asking how do planes stay up in the sky? The reality is, if you are a mechanical engineer then you understand  these things, if you are not, you make it up.  Does it matter? No.  It happens, the Wheel moves, you can ride up and down and I loved it, as did Lynn and Helen. This tea towel will always remind me of a great holiday in Scotland with Lynn and Helen.

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A Celebration of the Scots Language: 2006


Often when people visit Scotland, as tourists, they comment about how some Scottish accents are difficult to understand and how great the regional variations are; no different from England, Ireland or Wales really.  However, there is no doubt that it isn’t only the regional variation in accents that matters, but also the Scottish dialect.

I love a tea towel that informs, a tea towel from which you can learn something.  This isn’t the sort of tea towel that will be useful in the Pub Quiz but one which might help you if you are travelling in Scotland.  There are 26 words on this tea towel, words you might not even begin to guess the meaning of, words where you don’t know if someone is being complimentary or insulting.  A useful tea towel.  This is the sort of tea towel you need when listening to Kenneth McKellar or Andy Stewart.  For as long as I can remember, or rather as long as cars have an integral cassette player or CD player, when I have been going on holiday to Scotland I have played both Kenneth McKellar and Andy Stewart tapes/CDs; it gets you in the mood for a Scottish holiday.  I love traditional Scottish songs, both serious and comic: anything from the Skye Boat Song to Flower of Scotland, from Mairi’s Wedding to Eriskay Love Lilt, from Glencoe to Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond.  It was the Kenneth McKellar song about Midges that first drew my attention to the Scottish dialect; it was the word ‘simmet’ that I found frustrating.  What did it mean?  In the end, I wandered into Waterstones and browsed a book on the Scottish dialect to find out what the word ‘simmet’ means.  The answer is ‘vest’, a man’s vest in particular.  That makes sense: midges getting under your vest.

I saw this tea towel in a shop in Perth, when I had been pondering the Scottish dialect, and thought I ought to buy it.  While there are a number of tea towels concerning the Scottish dialect, I particularly like this one with it’s “unique range of guid Scots words”.  I like the serious nature of it; I like the way it is laid out like a dictionary with the word, the pronunciation, origin, a number of definitions, depending on whether it is used as a noun, verb or adjective and an example of how it might be used in a sentence.  It is the attention to detail that I like.  Some words like ‘eejit’ are more obvious and many people may be familiar with it (idiot); say it out loud and it is recognisable  but ‘greet’ could be open to misinterpretation. I wouldn’t have thought it meant ‘cry’ or ‘greetin face’ meant ‘cry-baby’.   I like ‘thrawn’ as stubborn or obstinate “Yer a thrawn auld bugger!”.  But my favourite is ‘fankle’ (“Didna get yourself in a fankle”) although I like to think of myself being described as ‘crabbit’ (“Ken this, yer a crabbit get, so you are”).    If you are wiping up you could get  completely distracted by reading all the words and their explanations; I love it.

One of the unexpected things that has happened, on my odyssey of writing about all my tea towels, is the discovery of so many small and specialist tea towel printers and designers.  In the past, when I have bought a tea towel I have just looked at the design and thought that I liked it.  It didn’t occur to me that there are so many long established businesses with their own specialities.  This tea towel is designed by SPRINT Designs, who have been around for more than 30 years, and specialise in quirkey tea towels, mugs, aprons, coasters etc representing “A keen Scottish sense of humour and identity”, focussing on the Scottish dialect. I like their use of black print on cream cotton, no colour, giving it an ‘intellectual’ look (although far from that if you read some of the words).  I like a bit of class in my tea towels.

I like this tea towel, I like the memories it conjures up of journeys to Scotland, trying to decipher Kenneth McKellar and Andy Stewart’s Scottish accents and realising that some of the difficulty may be about dialect and not accent.  And what better way to do the drying up than by testing anyone who is around about their knowledge of the Scottish dialect. It’s strange how people avoid me when I am wiping up!

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