Meeting the Birthday Girl — Southern Aurora 60th Anniversary Tour

The Southern Aurora looking good for sixty years old.

In the lead-up to Anzac Day we signed up for another trip. A very special one.

The Southern Aurora was a luxury train when it first began its regular commute between Sydney and Melbourne. The full commute on the one train was only made possible when the standard gauge track was completed between Sydney and Melbourne in 1962, with the first freight train completing its run on 3 January 1962. The first passenger train to go the whole distance in the one trip was the Southern Aurora, making its debut trip on 12 April 1962.

Train spotters at the ready. Many of them follow their favourite trains by car, appearing at the scheduled stops along the way. That’s dedication!

Often used as a business train, Southern Aurora would welcome you on board in Sydney in the evening, perhaps have dinner in the dining car with a friend while the train sat at Sydney’s Central Station, then you would settle into your sleeper compartment for the night as the train worked its way through the rat runs of tunnels on the beginning of the overnight journey to Melbourne.

A nightcap, perhaps? The lounge car had a bar, or you could simply retire early after the luxury of a shower in your own bathroom.

The Southern Aurora was the first train in the world to feature showers in the cabin bathrooms. It took decades for the rest of the world to catch up.

When rail was first built in Australia, there were different gauges in different states, which meant that those travelling interstate by train had to change trains.

Before 1961, the overnight trip from Sydney to Melbourne was punctuated in the wee small hours by the announcement, “Albury — all change!” and the grumbling of passengers as they emerged blearily into the darkness and cold of the Albury night to change trains for the next leg of the journey. The rank of the passengers did not matter. Some celebrities who travelled from Sydney to Melbourne and had to endure the train change included Agatha Christie, Don Bradman, H G Wells and even the famed race-horse Phar Lap. Australian opera star Nellie Melba (my one-time namesake, who made her professional debut as Helen Armstrong) travelled between Sydney And Melbourne by train, also having to endure the necessary train change in the night.

When travelling from Sydney to Melbourne in 1895 (pre-Southern Aurora days) celebrated US author Mark Twain commented on the lack of uniform gauge that necessitated this. “The oddest thing, the strangest thing, the most baffling and unaccountable marvel that Australia can show… think of the paralysis of intellect that gave this idea birth.”

The completion of a standard gauge track all the way from Sydney to Melbourne in 1962 finally made the trip possible on just the one train.

Our trip was on the sixtieth anniversary of that first Southern Aurora trip. It was going to involve a little more than just overnight.

Jeff, masked, paces the platform before boarding.

As with a lot of adventures these days, there is always uncertainty about whether it is safe to travel. We had to prove we were Covid-safe by having a negative RAT on the morning of departure and show certification of our vaccination status. For us, we had the added problems of landslides on our road due to flood damage. Rain had kept falling and we had to allow extra time to get in to the city. Landslides to the south on the rail lines had caused a lot of problems too. For the organisers, this was particularly problematic as the usual location for the storage of these heritage carriages was cut off by landslides and floods. Luckily most of the carriages had already been out and in use before the landslides. However, the planned locomotives were still trapped behind the earthwork barriers and replacements had to be found.

With the combination of floods, landslides and Covid we spent the week before departure carefully avoiding crowds and gatherings. We weren’t going to miss out!

Of course we arrived early to Central Station. Due to Covid (and perhaps the later afternoon hour) there was no café open on the concourse, and we had an hour to kill before check-in, so we dragged our bags downstairs in search of caffeine. We knew we’d be fed on the train, so we avoided food.

On the way. By train, of course! Covid restrictions apply.

Back upstairs, we noticed that all the other people checking in were on a first-name basis with the organisers. Everyone knew each other. A good sign — repeat business with the company.

This was very much a ceremonial event. Although we were early, the trainspotters were even earlier. Also gathering on Platform 1 was the Railway Band, ready to give us a proper send-off suitable to the historic occasion.

Railway Band getting ready. Southern Aurora got a wonderful send-off.

Some speeches, some music as the sun set, and soon we were ready to board. Some important announcements — the rolling stock is sixty years old, treat the cabin with care and respect. Special instructions regarding toilet-flushing were shared. Get it wrong, we were warned, and the carriages would run out of water. As the only toilets on board were the ones in our cabins, we had to get it right.

Finally we officially boarded, found our cabin and headed to the dining car allocated to us, for our first meal on board.

The menus were recreations from the originals.
Dinner on board, at Central Station. First course…

The problem with the landslides had robbed the train of a dining car, so there had to be two meal sittings. We were lucky to be in the first sitting, although it did mean early rising. For us it was no hardship, it meant we could watch the sunrise from bed.

In order to reduce Covid risks, we were allocated the same dining partners for our four-seat table for the trip. We also were required to wear masks when out of our cabin and moving about the train. Two carriages per dining sitting, and we were kept in those carriage groups as much as possible for all the other excursions on the tour, as our own Covid-safe bubble.

After a delicious (and very filling) dinner, we rolled back to our cabin and investigated the mysteries of the bathroom. It was tiny, but comprehensive. The shower head was on one wall, there was room to stand as long as the toilet and basin were folded up into the wall. To use the toilet, you had to fold it down. Leave it down to flush, we’d been warned. Don’t fold it back up while it’s still flushing or the mechanism could go doo-lally and not shut off the flushing water. The other passengers in the carriage would be very unhappy when  the water ran out. There are very few opportunities these days to refill a carriage’s water supply.

The basin also folded down from the wall to use, but it would automatically empty as it was folded back up.

Compact and a little challenging. The pile of fluffy towels that had been left for us had nowhere to go, so I stacked them on the shelf in front of the mirror. I had just washed my hands when the train lurched a little, and the pile of DRY fluffy towels tumbled into the basin full of water.

Bathroom in the cabin. The top metal bit is the basin, the bottom one is the toilet. Close the door first, you won’t be able to close it afterwards. Note the wet towel…

Train travel is not without its challenges. I wonder how Nellie Melba would have handled this sort of Pullman-class bathroom catastrophe.
After hanging the towels to dry, we climbed into our bunks and settled down for an early night.

I was woken during the night by lights shining in the window — we’d stopped in Goulburn to pick up another engine and driver. As we got underway again, the gentle rocking of the train soon lulled me back to sleep.

What adventures would tomorrow bring?
Watch this space…

A Ruff Guide, or ‘I’ve Gone a Bit Nuts During Covid’

My hand-sewing binge has gotten a little more out of hand.

Rocking the ruff. With pseudo-Tudor headband, 18th century-style hand-sewn shirt pretending to be Tudor, and the attempted pair-of-bodies from an old tablecloth and cable ties as boning. And bootlaces. Sanity has taken a holiday, it seems.

Regular readers will know that I sometimes attend medieval fairs. I also sing with a choir that performs medieval and Renaissance music, in historical clothing. After sewing myself a 15th century kirtle during lockdown in 2021, a fellow chorister asked if I’d make him a ruff. I’d never considered it before. In the end he bought himself one. But he’d started me digging again.

With my first ruff I used an old cotton sheet, using a rotary cutter to ensure the strips of fabric were perfectly even. I did a narrow hem top and bottom and rolled the fabric tightly, ready for work.  Before stitching the ruffles I looked at a lot of videos and settled on the following for a guide in how to stitch the outer edges of the ruffles together. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHuDl0_Yoqg Probably not canon, but who knows?

I also followed another video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlcGaXql1P0 on how to stitch top and bottom of the neck edge to a neck band. There are other videos which show this.

Some makers are reenactors like me, they break rules in order for the end product to be easy to manage. For example, I don’t consider squishing the neck-side down into a single seam, to be a true ruff. But that’s me. I want to be able to throw it in the washing machine (in a delicates bag!) and not need to starch it. These is for a stage costume.

I finished my first ruff and wore it to our Christmas concert in the heart of Sydney. During Covid lockdown we had nowhere in the city to change, so we travelled on the train in costume. That’s one way to get a seat!

My ‘back story’ as chorister is ‘seamstress’.
Costumed carolling choristers on the train. Masks mandatory on public transport because of Covid.
Post-performance in the city. ROH, unmasked!

By the end of the evening, my ruff was a little the worse for wear. I also found that my new red mask stained the ruff pink. Thankfully, it was the neck band (generally not seen) that bore the brunt.

Feeling tired and very ruff. Coming home on the train at the end of a long day. Rather crumpled.

So I resewed it. That required a new neck band (made out of the same old cotton sheet). The ruffles are stitched to each edge of the band, leaving all the fabric in the middle unattached and free (like many a Lord in Tudor court…)

The re-sew looked more even, but it’s still too densely packed. Back to the drawing board…

My grandson’s ruff taking shape.

My young grandson wants ‘to dress like a Tudor prince’ so I made a small-scale ruff for him. It’s blue, which was a banned colour in the court of Queen Elizabeth I (blue being the colour of the flag of Scotland, over which her hated cousin Mary ruled) but at the time of Elizabeth’s younger brother being King, that was not an issue. His outfit should hopefully be ready for Book Week at school in August.

My grandson, rocking the ruff. And a Tudor cap, just like Edward VI wore. Now for the rest of the costume, and he’s set for “The Prince and the Pauper” by Mark Twain, for Book Week. In August.

So now my guide on how to make a ruff. Remember, I hand-sew so I can still travel around, only not just with a notebook and camera, but also with a needle and thread.

I’ve found stitching the edge of the ruffle can be done discreetly and holds the ruffles in position.  That first link shows how.

Then as the length of ruffle gets longer, start attaching it to the band.

Measurements I use are easy to code, depending on what you want. My first white cotton ruff, and now my new one, were done with X = 1”.

For my grandson’s tiny ruff, X = 1 cm.

Here are the measurements I’ve learned through this process. On your long trip of fabric (historically, linen) I marked intervals along one edge with a very fine soft pencil (I use a propelling pencil so it’s always got a fine point).

Measuring the intervals and stitching the ruffles together. A task to do on the go, this all fitted neatly into my pocket.

Instead of using pins I mark intervals from the left-hand top edge of X, 1.5X, X, 1.5X and so on. When sewing (according to the Elizabethan Ruff Tutorial) you insert the needle two dots across, stitch the two points together then travel the needle back inside the tiny seam to the previous dot. Then stitch through two dots ahead again. And keep going!

Depending on what material you’re using, you might find it starts to get a bit too long to handle. That’s when you start to attach the ruff to a neck band. Make the band the length of your neck plus a cm or two for comfort. A ruff needn’t be uncomfortable! Make the ruff 2X in width. Slightly narrower is okay, don’t make it wider.

Now mark the band with the pencil at 0.5X intervals. Offset top and bottom by 50% (which means the top, say, is 0.0, 0.5, 1.0, 1.5 etc, the bottom is 0.25, 0.75, 1.25 etc). How far it stands out from the neck depends on how wide you cut your strips, and is completely independent. Cut them too wide, though, and it will be more inclined to flop and need starch.

My most recent ruff was a cheat – I bought 6 metres of ribbon (A$3 a roll) and some op-shop lace (3c a metre!). No need to hem the ribbon, which saved me a lot of time and effort.

I tried machine-stitching the lace to the ribbon, but the ribbon didn’t like it, it puckered. Hand stitching was almost as quick and much neater.

By marking the points with a soft lead pencil instead of using pins, it means I could carry the work in progress in a pocket at times. With the last one, I had the lace on a card and the ribbon on a roll, so I worked out of a shoulder bag. I’ve sewed on buses, on trains and in the car. Waiting around at various places. Watching TV, or even historical clothing YouTubes!

I finished sewing the ruff at choir practice and took a quick selfie to see how it looked.

Measurement needs to be as exact as possible, I use a pacer pencil with 2B leads for marking. With a roll of fabric, I used safety pins to stop it unrolling and tangling in my bag (or pocket). The satin ribbon/lace ruff was maybe three or four days of hand-sewing. The neck band can be machine-sewn from cotton or linen, but be accurate! I used press-studs on the neck band to fasten this one. Definitely not canon!

I sewed an extra flap on the neck band so the press-studs aren’t pressing into the neck. The more trad option is narrow ties, but for this one, the ties would have to match, and that ribbon is too slippery. It’s horrible to sew, even slightly rough skin on my thumb was snagging the ribbon and pulling threads.

Testing headwear. Not quite right. Work in progress.

I have a month to be ready for the next costumed outing with the choir. First step, padding…

With the ruff done, it’s time for me to move to the next part of my Mary Queen of Scots gown. But where to start?

Watch this space.

Travelling Haberdashery

My car is full of fabric.

I’ve mentioned before, how I went a bit nuts during last year’s four-month lockdown and immersed myself in historical clothing, mostly from 13th Century to early 17th Century.

Does my ruff look big in this?
Trying on an 18th Century puffy sleeve shirt (hand-sewn from an old sheet) which MIGHT pass muster for Tudor clothing. Maybe…

One of the choirs I belong to performs medieval and Renaissance music, and we perform in costume. I mentioned this in Travelling in Costume — at Christmas! helenjarmstrong.home.blog/2021/12/17/travelling-in-costume-at-christmas/

Over summer I got busy sewing more costume items, working at my own pace with no deadlines. Hand-sewing can be taken anywhere and I often sew while a passenger either in a car or by train. I discovered that old flannelette sheets make an acceptable visual substitute for wool, while being more lightweight for a warmer climate.

Sewing in lockdown while getting my dose of Vitamin D.

Backyard fitting. It still looks like a flannelette sheet. Needs work…
I bought the braid. It was $3 a roll. I needed three rolls exactly. Which makes this a $9 coat.
There we are! A bit of braid and he looks much happier.

Before I rediscovered hand-sewing, I got involved in Boomerang Bags in our village. We are a group of volunteers who make cloth bags from discarded, donated fabric. Another group near us formed as an offshoot of our group originally. I met up with one of them while browsing a new second-hand fabric shop which has opened in our district. I’d gone there looking for more old flannelette sheets (no such luck).

The rest of the same flannelette sheet — 13th Century hose. Not joined in the crotch.
Currently worn with lightweight cotton trousers underneath. Braes next!
Back view, to show the seam down the back of the leg. Functional, not glamorous.
The grin on his face is because a couple of neighbours stopped to stare.
Explaining to the neighbours with maille coif. Also unwittingly demonstrating why codpieces were ‘a thing’.

I was exclaiming over some lace I found, when my fellow Boomerang Bag sewer from the neighbouring group heard my voice (we couldn’t really see each other’s faces, current guidelines are for mask-wearing in shops). Her sewing group had plenty of sheets, she told me, which their group won’t use.

There was a brief lull in the rain on the day when I visited her home to collect the fabric. At the last minute she warned me that she had just been diagnosed with Covid, so we did a quick outdoor transfer of bags. I didn’t get a chance to check the fabric until we got home several hours later. It all needed to be  transferred from my husband’s car to mine.

When I inspected it, I found to my joy that there were several flannelette sheets. They were old, badly pilled and had no other use. A tablecloth was a bit too worn and had a couple of stains. Ideas!

My car was full to the back of the seats with bags of fabric. “Not a problem,” I told hubby. “I’ll hand it over at our next sewing bee on Wednesday.”

The next day one of our kids tested positive for Covid. We were locked down.

I got sewing. No sewing machine, but I’m getting more confident with my hand-sewing.

Women in Tudor times wore a precursor to stays, called “pair of bodies”. They were in two parts, laced at the front and back, stiffened with bundles of reeds. The purpose was not to tightly lace a person into their clothing, but to provide a smooth shape in order to better display the fabric of their clothing. Fabric was expensive and labour-intensive to make, and the best was on display.

Ready for cardboard mock-up.

Because a pair of bodies was something all women wore, often as part of their undergarments, it was worn to death. Literally. Few examples survive, because these were patched, re-stiffened, repaired, re-lined and re-purposed until they fell apart. When people died, their clothing (including underclothing) was too valuable to throw away, it was passed on, until the next wearer passed on…and eventually the underclothing itself died in service.

As a result, few examples survive. But when Elizabeth I died in 1603, an effigy of her was commissioned, along with clothing to her measure. The dressed effigy was paraded through London, with the queen’s body, on the way to Westminster Abbey. This pair of bodies is still on display there, perhaps the best remaining example in the world, as it was never worn by any person living or dead, and never simply passed on to the next wearer.

We learn a lot from portraits also.

So here we were in lockdown, and I still need to keep working on my costume project for the dual purpose of dressing up at medieval fairs, and being suitably attired for the Renaissance choir performances.

I drafted the pattern for a pair of bodies to my own measurements.
http://www.elizabethancostume.net/corsets/pattern.html I started with cardboard, wrapped myself in it to check and moved to a fragment of old, stained curtain for a fold-up pattern.

Cable ties at the ready. Strong scissors are enough to cut them to size.

An old, stained and frayed tablecloth became the mock-up. A practice run.

Because this is for a costume rather than true historical accuracy, I had no qualms using heavy-duty cable ties for boning. In Tudor times bodies were often stiffened with buckram, a sort of heavy linen canvas liberally coated in glue made from rabbit skin. Not exactly washable… I did consider making my own modern and washable buckram using acrylic house paint instead of rabbit glue, but I wanted to play with boning. I’ve never done it before and it looked like fun.

As this was hand-sewn, I was able to take it with me. When we were allowed out of lockdown to at least shop for food, I would take my sewing bag with me and work on the bodies in the car (hubby driving). Doctors’ waiting rooms too, got a close-up look at my stays in development.

The first few ‘bones’ in place. In Tudor times they used bundles of reeds to stiffen the ‘bodies’, or buckram.
Lacing is the elastic from a dead fitted sheet. This is just a mock-up, after all.

Because I carry a seam-ripper in my pocket, spare thread in my bra and my current sewing project in a cloth bag, I’m at the ready for any other sewing tasks that come my way.

Yesterday on the train in Melbourne, while I was hand-felling some seams in a chemise, hubby said, “I need to put a few stitches in the strap of my shoulder bag.” He quickly added, “I don’t need you to do it, just give me some thread when we get back to the hotel, I have a large needle in my pack.”

I reached into my sewing bag, pulled out a bargain-shop array of sewing needles and invited him to select one. I threaded the needle for him (challenging on a moving train!) and he got to work, both of us sitting side-by-side on the train, sewing companionably.

I’d started the boning at the back for the lacing. Then I tied myself in and realised, it was too big. So I took to it with scissors and hacked out the centre. Did I cut too much? I’d have to do all the boning, and sew it all up closed, before I could know.

With a long trip coming up (another post coming soon, I promise – with REAL travel!) I wanted the job done. And I did it, by one day. I laced myself in and found that it fits. A bit rough, the final result may need to be re-made, but I’ve learned a lot in the process.

Laced in,front and back. I need to make a few adjustments. Better lacing, for a start!


And isn’t that what life is about?

Two days before we travelled, I was finally able to drop off the spare fabric I’d been given.

However, my car is still full of fabric.

Rain Bomb

We’re in a La Niña event, they tell us. We’ve had a wet summer and now we’re enduring a sodden autumn (that’s fall, for those of you in the US). Weeks with hair and clothes constantly damp. I keep a change of clothes in the car, for when I get soaked. Spare shoes. Towel. Pillow.

Overflowing gutters.

Our main access road crosses a weir which floods when the river is full. Some factors which aggravate the flooding have also been aggravating a lot of my neighbours also. When the river is high, the word is out: “Don’t spit upstream.”

The weir, just about to spill over onto the road.

The recent flooding rains have been catastrophic for so many people in other parts of the state. When the rains moved south to Sydney, a new phrase entered our vocabulary — “rain bomb”.

I have experienced such events before. Being in a rain bomb is like stepping into an industrial-strength shower. You‘re soaked to the skin in seconds.

Drenching rain — we can get 100 mm in half an hour.

Yesterday I went to the weir to see how it was faring. It started raining as I arrived so I set up in the cafe under their wide veranda and watched the deluge on the river. It was bad — a family of ducks decided to shelter from the rain under my table. I sat and worked on my writing for the couple of hours I had.

A happy duck, not needing to escape from any rain. Another day…

Later after the rain eased, I walked across the weir and noticed how hard it was flowing. It began to spill over onto the road as I was there.

When I went home, I sent another lot of photos and emails to various government departments. Management of our road during a flooding deluge is not working, and I’ve been digging in to find out why, and trying to get action. Just one more thing that gets in the way of my writing.

Today I had a choice to make. Go out, or stay home? I’ve got a book talk to attend. And not just any book talk.

Traffic camera image. Very useful — definitely time for a detour!

Of course, the rain starts just as I’m loading the car. I’d checked the traffic camera that covers the weir. No passage there, it’s Niagara Falls. The café I visited yesterday will have closed due to flooding today.

I’m in for The Long Drive.

It’s getting heavy as I throw my bags in the car and jump in before getting soaked. The towel is getting a lot of use these days, as I mop the water that tried to follow me in.

Just out of the village, the rain bomb hits. The sky is the colour of liquorice and the water hits the windscreen like a fire hose. Wipers on max only channel the worst. Headlights on, fog lights on, even though it’s mid-morning. I’d pull over but the side of the road is damaged from past storms. The ground is so waterlogged that huge holes appear in the road almost overnight. Trees, roots loosened in the mud, can topple without warning if you just sneeze in the wrong direction.

Passers-by dragging a small fallen tree off the road. Bigger ones can take out the road.

There was almost a week of relatively fine weather (only a little rain) so most of the potholes have been patched. We’re starting over. I give it a day, if that. As I drive, I peer through the rain to scan for bad potholes. Over the last few weeks there have been many popped tyres and bent wheel rims from people hitting a pothole that was hidden under a puddle.

Left? Or right? Flood sign closed in this photo, so we can head right.

A slow crawl of cars goes past in the heavy downpour, slinking their way slowly in single file, like saturated chickens huddling together for fear or warmth. Safety in numbers. Headlights on, wipers at full speed.

The rain has eased a little as I drive past the road to the beach. I see some men dragging gates shut. I didn’t stop to ask, but it’s likely the road has been closed due to tree fall.

The road winds down to the valley, and mist is thickening around the road from the thundering waterfalls. Water is pouring across the road, taking gravel with it. Potholes are already forming, patches breaking down.

Behind me, cars are building up. I let the cars past then pull in to look at the old upstream weir. This was thankfully replaced some years ago by a bridge, but it still shows us how badly the river is flooding.

The upstream, now-abandoned weir. Thank goodness for the bridge!

I turn back, cross the bridge, and begin the climb uphill. Tall cabbage-tree palms line the road, with blood gums and other eucalypts straining to maintain their grip on the friable cliffs. Halfway up, here is an incongruous sight — a traffic light. About a month ago, the outer lane of the road partly collapsed and is in need of rebuilding. Until that can happen, the road has to be single lane. I wait at the red light, and soon a string of cars trails past.

Temporary traffic light in the middle of the wilderness. Half the road has fallen into the valley. It will be months fixing this.

Green! I move into the single lane, hoping the road holds. The lights are on a timer and I shudder at the memory of a friend who moved forward on the green light, then found herself caught behind a cyclist, struggling up the hill in the single lane, taking so long that the automated timer changed at the other end and they were met by oncoming traffic where none should have been.

Out on the highway, another rain bomb hit. This is the pattern — drenching rain, low visibility, damaged roads. Then it eases, until next time.

I  got to the book talk with time to spare. It’s not raining. It’s as if it only rains on our village, or near the river, guaranteeing that we will be flooded in for weeks. I know that’s not true, I’ve attended meetings with this writing group in the last few months where the deluge was so bad that water was flooding in the door. Not today, thank goodness.

The Torrent is a new crime fiction book set in a fictional town in the NSW Northern Rivers area, three months after a serious flood event. The main character, a detective who is about to go on maternity leave with her second child, is given a cold case to work on, a man who was found drowned in that deluge. Everything is not as it seems. There are murkier depths that are shockingly uncovered, even with all the workplace politics trying to interfere.

The author is Dinuka McKenzie, a pocket rocket of a human dynamo, a young woman with drive and passion for writing. Her talk about her writing process is very useful.

Fan-girling big time. It was worth braving the rain bombs to hear the author talk.

The book was only launched last month, but I’ve already read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. It breaks a lot of stereotypes but only benefits from this. The plot is delightfully complex and very satisfying. This is a detective novel that doesn’t cheat.

Keeping it real, keeping the book honest, is very important. When bits aren’t working, the author tells us, you need to dig in and fix it. Focus on the problem. Because when it’s fixed, you’ve got something great.

Like the road, I  think. The weir.

I’ll have a lot to think about on the long drive home. There’s no rush. If I have to pull off the road when the rain bombs hit, so be it.

Clocking On… Astronomical Skeleton Clock

Our first trip after a four-month Sydney Covid lockdown was to meet this glorious chronological creation.

My husband Jeff retired in November 2019 and immediately expanded his engineering hobby activities. His ‘gateway habit’ is live steam, notably miniature live steam trains. However, he’s been learning machining from scratch and in the process has made connections with some very deep pockets and deeper obsessions in miniature crafting.

Even before he retired, he had been following information online and via a forum on the Antikythera Mechanism which had been dredged up from an ancient shipwreck off the shore of the Greek island of Antikythera. With my own background in science and interests in ancient Greece, I also became engrossed in the work of Chris Budiselic (better known by his YouTube handle Chris from Clickspring) as he theorised that this mechanism was an ancient chronometer. By studying detailed scans of the original mechanism and trying to physically recreate the device, Chris found his work causing considerable excitement in the world of horology. Jeff and I were both excited when Chris reached the point of professional publication. [https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/fzp8u]

Along the way, Jeff noticed other articles about an amazing astronomical skeleton clock being crafted. It had been commissioned in 2003 by American Mark Frank as a specialised addition to his vast collection of timekeeping devices. After three years of designs the actual work commenced in 2006 and was expected to take three years. Fifteen years later it is, at last, finished. The clock’s functions include: 400-year perpetual calendar; equation of time; sidereal time; sun/moon rise and set; moon’s phase and age; tides; solar/lunar eclipses; planisphere; tellurium; and full-featured orrery to Saturn with functional moons.

It also tells the time.

A delightfully complex timepiece.

We were particularly excited when we realised that the clock was being built a couple of hours drive away from our home in the highlands south of Sydney.

We watched the reports of the clock, now finished and needing to be readied for shipping to the US. Jeff had made contact with the clock maker and we had an invitation to go see the clock, which was being monitored in running condition prior to packing it up. Mechanical devices need debugging as much as computer software. However, while Sydney was in lockdown, we were unable to travel.

In early November 2021 we at last had permission to leave our neighbourhood. Jeff rang Master Clockmaker who is a very private person and has asked us to not identify him in this article. He was very happy for us to visit to look at the clock. We chose a weekday to avoid any crowds (we’re still being careful).

The day was overcast at home, but as we drove south a light misty rain grew heavier. Fog clouded the road and we took our time. Everything was soft green, blurring into the distance. It was as if we were driving back into the past, to a time when craftsmanship was prized far more highly. The temperature dropped as we drove into the Southern Highlands area past heritage houses with clipped cypress hedges.

Winding, misty roads as we head to the Southern Highlands.

We finally pulled up in an industrial estate at an engineering warehouse. Master Clockmaker met us at the large Roll-a-Door and ushered us past plastic-wrapped pallets into a small workshop. One more door and there it was, in all its golden glory.

Here it is with Jeff, for scale.
The necessary precision of these skeletonised gears is breathtaking.

The skeleton clock is about the size of a large old-style valve television and even though skeletonising the gears has reduced its weight, it still weighs over 125 kg. It is so much more than just a clock. When we saw it, it was keeping time to about a second a week, which for a mechanical device is very good. It will run for a week on one winding, and the spring system is a little different to what we think of in a standard mainspring. The double-spring system uses a roll of sprung steel under tension which winds itself down from a point of high tension to low tension. If it breaks, it will not turn to shrapnel and destroy the delicate mechanisms. It’s also much more efficient at even transfer of energy, so you don’t get any “winding down” or slowing effect. A clock needs to measure hours at the same rate when freshly wound as when it is almost time to wind it back up again. Winding a clock is putting energy into the system, from the hand of the person doing the winding. Then the clock neatly dispenses its dose of energy to its gears, tick by tick, second by second.

Winding handle in place.

Any detailed mechanical clock requires gears to operate. The teeth on the different gears help define the hours, minutes and seconds, among other functions. The more the clock is required to do, the more gears. For a large, complex clock, solid discs for gears means a very heavy device indeed. More weight not only means more metal, but more importantly means a greater moment of inertia (I’m digging back to my senior high school Physics here, in rotational mechanics). A greater moment of inertia means more rotational torque. The classic example of rotational torque is an ice skater doing a spin — as they pull their arms and legs in close to the axis of revolution, the rotational inertia falls and they spin faster. You can duplicate this on an office chair, by spinning on it with your arms and legs out, then pulling your arms and legs in. Don’t get dizzy! And make sure the boss is nowhere near.

The back of the clock.

The force needed to drive such a complicated mechanism is therefore greater with solid gears, and to turn all this uses a hand-wound mainspring (in this case, a double-spiral of sprung steel). With a heavier apparatus either a bigger spring is needed, or you’d have to wind it a lot more often. The original design for this clock included four slowly falling weights, 25 Kg each, to provide the driving force.

But if the gear discs are mined out, the weight is reduced. Less mass in a gear and it will turn much more easily. A solid brass disc can be reduced to a thin hoop of little more than gear teeth. The result is beautiful, almost lacy in appearance but still very functional. The workmanship has to be meticulous even by clockmaker standards. The skeletonising when done well is a very fine balance between function and efficient operation. The beauty in this case is also evidence of skill and deserves to be on display. When you’re this good at clock-making, you want to show off, at least to other clockmakers.

Three bells chime the hours.

I’m told there are lot of ‘complications’. (Yeah, really?)

In horological terms, a ‘complication’ is an advanced feature, such as a striking mechanism in some clocks that show little characters doing fun things. Some articles include software such as you’d find in a smart watch, an added feature which is implemented by software, as a complication. But for most purists, it’s the mechanical marvel of a more traditional timepiece complication that makes them so special. My brother-in-law had a grandfather clock which showed the phases of the moon. A single complication was the most common finding, if there were any at all. Sadly, that clock was damaged beyond repair when a small kitten climbing behind it knocked it over.

The Strasbourg Clock  in Alsace, France, has a number of complications which include a parade, at solar noon, of Christ and his apostles. It is worth looking up [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strasbourg_astronomical_clock]. As a child I was fascinated with the scale model of the Strasbourg clock in what was then the Sydney Technological Museum (now incorporated into the Sydney Powerhouse Museum). But then the Sydney model stopped working and, as the man who had made this model had died, for many years was unable to be repaired. It takes a special mind indeed, and a dedicated craftsman, to be able to fathom the workings of another’s genius creation.

Zodiac with orrery. Note the ring around Saturn, and even its larger moons which also revolve around the planet.
The Master Clockmaker showed us how the complications have been made modular for ease of service.

But let’s go back to Moss Vale in November 2021.

The Astronomical Skeleton Clock has over 52 complications. Among other features, it has a built-in model of the solar system, so not just the phases of the moon can be seen, but the orbits of the planets. With some of the planets, the larger moons can also be seen, tiny seed pearls on fine wire. The planets have been crafted from semi-precious stones and the orbit of each is also controlled by fine gears within the clock.

Tools of the craftsman.
An early ‘mock-up’ of the project, gilded timber (on its side to the back) with artwork of the rings in development.
The scrapheap — gears with broken teeth, pieces not quite right or surplus to requirements.

Master Clockmaker ushered us around the workshop rooms, showing us various mock-up stages of the Astronomical Skeleton Clock. He showed us another of his clocks, literally coal-fired. There was a beautifully-polished brass flue leading from a small enclosed brazier in the base. The fire was to provide thermal compensation to warm the mechanism of the clock and thereby reduce temperature problems in colder climates. It had zinc bimetallic strips to compensate for fluctuations in temperature, and is a replica of one in Buckingham Palace.

The ‘coal-fired clock’. A modern reconstruction. The brass flue is hidden in plain sight.
The drawer for the coal brazier hidden in the base.

The craftsmanship of Master Clockmaker was clear in quiet ways, in his neat storage of tools, in the range of well-used utensils and in his box of scraps. A work of art like this doesn’t get made without tears along the way. A wheel with names of world cities in order (for time zones) had needed to be replaced when an observant fan following the construction online noticed that two cities were listed in reverse order. Master Clockmaker gave this now-useless piece to Jeff, who promised to send it to the sharp-eyed observer.

A delighted selfie — ‘Duncan Luddite’, delighted with his own piece of the Astronomical Skeleton Clock.

Some tiny but detailed fragments had been replaced when there was perhaps a variation in design, or perhaps the item was not quite the right size. I held in the palm of my hand a tiny, metallic sun which had been crafted by the cire-perdue or ‘lost wax’ method, which is sacrificial on the original artwork. To replace it would have needed an entirely new piece to be made.

Detailed rejects. If you look at the clock photos carefully, you will find the pieces that were perfect enough for the clock.

Jeff was losing himself in the technical brilliance, but for me — I couldn’t go beyond the sheer, exquisite beauty of the work.

Although it was spread over about fifteen years (with time off for other side jobs), the project took twelve years to make, the work of a genius craftsman. A once-in-a-lifetime creation, brilliance and perfection. Master Clockmaker has also ensured that each complication was able to be readily separated from the whole timepiece, for servicing and maintenance. It has been thoroughly documented and the knowledge has been passed on. Unlike similar projects in centuries past, this clock will be able to continue and be maintained long after its creator has gone to that glorious workshop in the sky.

Fog persisted. We took the scenic route home.

Travelling in Costume — at Christmas!

This blog, as you will notice from the header, is supposed to be about writing and travel. That’s been challenging over the last few years due to Covid restrictions. Especially in Australia, some parts particularly, we’ve been very limited in travel, or even leaving the house. It’s been very isolating.

Choir rehearsal by Zoom, during the beginning of lockdown in June 2021.
The background is from our travels in Greece in 2018.

I’ve been busy writing, I published two group anthologies while Sydney was in lockdown from late June 2021 to early October 2021, when there was ‘early release’ for those who have been double-vaccinated. I’m not going to discuss the rights and wrongs of the government directives. It just is, and merely sets the scene for what now follows.

I love to sing. I especially love close harmony, but that becomes increasingly challenging when ‘close’ conflicts with the need for social distance. I belong to two choirs which each give me something different, musically. One sings modern arrangements in a barbershop style while the other performs music from past centuries in multiple languages.

I’ve written earlier about my links with historical clothing. When we went into the latest, longest lockdown in Sydney, it was just after my attendance at Blacktown Medieval Fayre. I felt dissatisfied with my attempt at costume and resolved to do more. I wrote about this in Down the Rabbit Hole. https://wordpress.com/post/helenjarmstrong.home.blog/1529

First I repaired the medieval clothing of other family members who are regular historical reenactors. That gave me the confidence to try more.

Dressing/road-testing the new kirtle, about to go for a short walk in the neighbourhood.
St Birgitte coif. The band is sewn from an old, torn chambray shirt.
The coif, being worn. It hides a multitude of hair-colouring sins.

During the early part of the lockdown, I hand-sewed a 13th century kirtle (think, Maid Marian). Then I think I went a bit crazy. I had some old, worn fitted sheets with ‘dead’ elastic. I spread them out on the lawn in a desperate attempt to keep involved with life and hopefully say hi to any passing jogger. Cutting out fabric, I hand-sewed several chemises, learning more in the process. A coif or two as well, using an old torn shirt and a ripped sheet. I found myself binge-watching historical videos and clothing history sewing videos while I stitched. As I adapted the discarded fabric in my life, I channelled my inner Scarlett o’Hara (remember those green velvet curtains at Tara?). One way or another, as God was my witness, I would never be costume-less again.

Ready to cut.

As we began to come out of lockdown, our Renaissance choir (ROH Ensemble) was able to rehearse once more (under very strict conditions). I showed photos of what I had been making, and sat at rehearsal finishing the hand-stitching on another St Birgitte coif.

“Would you make me a ruff?” one male chorister asked.

I thought about it. That would be stretching my skills. “I’ll have to find out more,” I told him.

More binge-watching. The information was frustratingly scarce. The process seemed frustratingly tedious and painstaking. The more I studied, the more I realised that ruffs, while worn by ‘ordinary folk’, were very much a status symbol because of the effort (and therefore expense) involved in their making.

ROH Ensemble rehearsing as lockdown eased. (Cheat pic – taken back in February 2021)

I was determined to try, however. One video looked more useful.

The first day we were allowed to leave our local government area, we went to visit our daughter. She gave me an old cot sheet which I carefully unpicked. “While you’re sewing costumes,” she remarked, “Master Six wants to be able to dress up as a Tudor prince.”

Okay, another request for a ruff. And a Tudor cap. My to-do list was rapidly growing.

I visited a neighbour with whom I do a lot of community sewing. In her basement I rapidly machine-sewed a number of quick projects. Using her rotary cutter and very careful measurement, I cut the old cot sheet into as many lengths of 10-cm-wide strips as I could, then carefully machine-hemmed one side. The video had said there was no need to hem the other side. I’ve since found this is bad advice…

Learning by doing. Some videos were more helpful than others…
Sewing the ruffles to the neck band. That raw edge was a bad fraying problem, it needs to be all done again.
Finished ruff. For now… that curve is because I had to sew it to the band at an angle, because of the fraying.

As Bernadette Banner (noted dress historian and prolific YouTuber) so often says, “there is no such thing as true historical accuracy.” All we can do is study the past and try to extrapolate how it was done, and hope we can get as close as possible.

Back at home I sat and hand-stitched some more. I developed a technique of hand-stitching a ruff that let me carry it around in my pocket, so I could take it out and sew a little more wherever I was. I was almost manic in my zeal, when our choir director told us that we had two gigs in the city. We needed costumes! She was determined to improve the historical accuracy and the look of how the choir presented.

In our Renaissance choir, the look is very individual. We do not look like each other. Often, we’re not always from the same time period, our brief is medieval and Renaissance. I had originally planned for my own costume to be 13th century, but now I was sewing a ruff, that put my costume in the Elizabethan period. Late Tudor.

At my neighbour’s place again, I raided her stash of upholstery samples and made some pockets. These were worn in medieval and Tudor times either under an over-dress or on the outside. When you hear the child’s nursery rhyme, “Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it”, it is referring to these old-style pockets which tied around the waist. According to reports, some women would even carry live chickens to market in their pockets. I figured I could use one to carry my medieval mobile phone and my medieval Opal card (public transport card). I sewed a couple more for other women in the choir.

I went shopping. Cautiously, wearing my mask and keeping my distance. Maybe I could make another dress… then I saw some lace, and some braid. I scurried home with my treasures. And did more sewing.

Kirtle with braid – it took exactly six metres. Trying to turn a 13th century costume into something that COULD be 16th century.

Another friend bought himself a new costume. There was nothing wrong with the old one, but he wanted a change. Unfortunately, it needed work. So that pulled me away. He also needed a Tudor cap, and in my fabric stash I found some royal blue corduroy and fuschia taffeta. An old music folder contributed some stiffening for the brim. It was brilliant. Sadly, too small (hopefully, it will fit Tudor-prince-loving grandson). So I started over, using two layers of plastic drawer liner as stiffener. This time — too big.

The lining and the outer layer — these are the same. We just tuck one inside the other and stitch together.
The stiffened brim of a Tudor cap.
Finished Tudor cap. This first one (too small) had to be finished in green bias binding,
I was only able to use what I had in he house. No shopping permitted.

My other choir, Endeavour Harmony Chorus, was also booked to perform in the city, on the first night of the Sydney City Christmas program, which was very exciting. Getting the costumes organised was a lot easier for a choir where everyone dresses the same. The City of Sydney was providing t-shirts for us.

Endeavour Harmony Chorus performing Christmas carols by the Martin Place Christmas tree.

The City of Sydney also offered t-shirts to ROH Ensemble but our director graciously declined. It would have looked so wrong with a ruff.

Ready to travel, in costume. My character back-story is seamstress. Of course!
Costumed and masked on the train to Martin Place in the centre of Sydney.

On the day our Renaissance choir performed Christmas carols in the city, we did our best to travel in as a group. With Covid restrictions still in place, there was nowhere sufficient, or with enough time, for us to fully change into our costumes so we travelled in to the city by train already in medieval and Renaissance costume. People were carefully not looking at us.

On Sydney’s public transport we still need to wear masks. Next to the performance area a hotel gave access to two toilet cubicles and a warm-up space. The hotel required QR check-in, proof of double vaccination and masks. But as performers, we also needed to put on some make-up. Masks make a big mess with lipstick, especially.

We managed. We managed it well, I think.

ROH Ensemble Choir at the big Christmas tree in Martin Place, Sydney. December 2021.
Post performance. Will the rain hold off? Note the pocket. I also carried my musical instrument in there.

Endeavour Harmony Chorus has now performed twice this year in this Christmas tree space, and each choir has one more performance to go in the city. It’s been exciting, challenging (fitting in song sets in between the large city clock striking every quarter hour, and an over-enthusiastic programming of the giant musical Christmas tree). On our next Renaissance performance, apparently a nearby cathedral has brought in bell-ringers from around the state, and they will be enthusiastically pealing bells while we sing of Christmas. In costume.

It’s different. But it’s wonderful to sing again, and to be out and about. What a Christmas gift!

After our next performance in Renaissance costume, I’m taking the ruff apart. It needs more work to ‘floof’ it out a bit more. However, each time I do something or make something, I get better.

Tired after a busy day. Returning home on the train. The ruff didn’t come through too badly, but it needs more work.

I have a long way to go, but it will be a fun time getting there!

Last night one of the other sewer choristers gave me three boxes of fabric for costumes… *sigh*

An old doona cover. I’m thinking maybe red underskirt, brocade overskirt and boned brocade stomacher…

Venice in July

Venice is art, music and history, with a big helping of mystery and surprise.

As Sydney comes out of yet another, and the longest so far, Covid lockdown, we’re starting to look around at travel opportunities again. I saw an ad land in my in box, a hotel deal for Venice, right next to Piazza San Marco. It looked expensive, so I looked up the place we’d stayed in. Much cheaper, actually comparable to a hotel in an inexpensive Australian country town. Oh, the memories!

Everything Venice — the sea, the damage it does, and the means to get around. Venice, 2018.

A good friend had been booked to go to Venice for her first-ever trip before Covid hit. I sent her some photos and the name of our hotel in case she’s interested. It’s time to plan our travel again.

I thought back to when we planned our own trip. Venice had been on our own bucket list after so many books we’d read which were set in that unique city. But we could only squeeze it in during July.

‘Don’t do it!’ we were told, far too late. ‘Venice is nice, although a bit overrated. But in the height of summer, in the heat, the stench is terrible!’

We were making our way across Europe in 2018 and visiting places along the way. We’d been homebodies for most of our lives, armchair travellers only. The world has so many special places we wanted to see, and our trip was bookended by people we needed to visit. But many other more seasoned travellers were trying to mould our itinerary to their own preferences. But we’d booked. Couldn’t back out. When you’ve been stuck at home most of your life, the chance to visit places like Venice, ever, were just too enticing. Even in the heat of July.

From Greece we flew to Rome and joined a tour which also included three days in Venice. In early July the summer heat was intense. Rome with its free-flowing water at various fountains and faucets was more refreshing than we’d expected.

We were travelling by train. Some people might turn their noses up, but not us. And the Italian train service, the Frecciarossa (‘red arrow’) at 300 km/hr is almost as fast as a plane, with the added bonus of scenery out the windows closer to hand. There were other benefits to Frecciarossa — wifi on board, USB and plug-in power, a call button system similar to airline seats and comfort. Good food, too. And for me, plenty of time to write. The plug-in power meant no chance of flat battery on my laptop interfering with my creativity.

Our first view of Venice, as the train crossed the lagoon.

Despite the comfort we were out of our seats to watch as the train slid across the bridge of the Venice lagoon. We could only see a tantalising glimpse of Venice, as if it was a treasure held loosely in a closed hand. Then we were indoors at the railway terminal (ferrovia, or ‘iron way’) for Venezia Santa Lucia. Just the name was exciting and romantic.

From the ferrovia, the steps of the railway station.

For the tour, hotel transfer was included. But for Venice, don’t expect a minibus or even a minicab. We got met, and then we walked. Not far, however. But as we left the ferrovia, we just had to stop and gasp. Venice! Grand Canal! Opposite was Chiesa San Simeon. We had to shake ourselves and hurry to catch up with our bags which were in danger of disappearing around a bend in the path. But our guide had paused, smiling. ‘You will enjoy our beautiful city, I think,’ he said, ‘after we have checked you in to your hotel.’

The foyer of Abbazia Hotel, Venice. 2018
In centuries past, this was the dining hall and a monk would give readings from this lectern during meals.

The heat of the day outside was instantly cooled in the high vaulted ceilings of out hotel, Abbazia. It is a former monastery converted to a hotel and was only a few minutes’ walk from the railway station. We were early for check-in and also had to register with our tour guide, but even indoors there was so much to explore.

When we finally saw our room, it was a lot larger and less spartan than a monk’s cell. It wasn’t huge, but it was large enough for a huge TV directly above a large, black bathtub. I kid you not — there was a bathtub in the bedroom. We discovered the separate bathroom with some relief. Taking to the other tour members, it appeared each room was distinctively different, and we were the only ones with such a tub.

The bathtub under the TV, at the end of the bed. The rest of the bathroom is on the other side of that wall.
Looking back the other way. The chandelier was Murano hand-blown glass. There was a white one in the bathroom.

As with so many other cities, we headed out the door as fast as we could. While we had tours organised for the next day, our afternoon and evening was free. So we crossed bridges, we walked, we window-shopped and just goggled at it all. Towards the end of the day we saw smartly-dressed Venetians gathering for a drink in a bar before heading home. Many of them chose to lean against a counter outside, sipping their Aperol Spritz. Having walked so much, we decided to sit inside. Despite the coolness after the scorching heat outside, there were very few people indoors. Our choosing seats marked us as tourists (assuming our clothing and accents didn’t do that already). I think the price went up too, for table service, but our feet needed a break.

Aperol Spritz on the Grand Canal, Venice 2018
Food franchises around the world. *sigh* Venice, 2018
The first Venetian mask we saw.
…and the second.
For the Star Trek fans, spot the Venetian borg. Venice, 2018.

We walked further and found a small supermarket. I needed my supplies of lactose-free milk (‘latte sensa lattiosa’). On the way back to the hotel we were distracted constantly, by Venetian masks, flags, shop windows full of exotic blown glass and a confectionery store specialising in nougat. Bliss!

You could get very fat in this place.
Cascading chocolate. Venice 2018.

The next day began with a vaporetto taking our small tour group to Piazza San Marco, where we toured the church then explored the Doge’s Palace. This included a demonstration of glass blowing, as gondolieri plied their trade past the windows. We succumbed to temptation and bought a set of tumblers, to be shipped home.

Piazza San Marco. Venice, 2018.
Looking doen to the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace. Note the round fountain in the centre.
Such opulence! Looking down the Grand Staircase to the courtyard. Venice, 2018.
The last view of Venice as the prisoner is taken to the dungeons gave this enclosed bridge the name, ‘Bridge of Sighs’. Venice 2018
Bridge of Sighs from the outside, seen from another room in the Doge’s Palace. Venice 2018
Venetian glass. Venice 2018
Beautiful blown glass, a touch of Cappadocia in Venice 2018.

Impoverished by the purchase, we were glad lunch had been included in our tour as we were taken to Burano Island to see an even more colourful side of Venice.

Burano Island. Lots of colour and curtains instead of flyscreen doors. Venice 2018.
Flowers, colour and wafting curtains on Burano Island. Can there be any more romance? Venice, 2018.
Mystery, music and temptation. Venice, 2018.
Yours truly, Burano island. Venice 2018.

One thing I was very aware of, was people everywhere. In such a picturesque place, it is difficult to get a photo that doesn’t have other people in it. Unless we were out of the way, exploring quiet, dark, dank alleys, we were around other people.

The next day was ours alone. We bought 24 hour passes on the waterbus and just took ourselves where we wanted to go. We saw more of the normal daily life of Venetians, rather than the tourist trail. The tiny alleys, little curved bridges, steps everywhere. So easy to get lost, but when every blind alley is showing something new, nobody cares.

The hidden, quiet corners of Venice.
Gondolier off duty. Venice 2018

We looked at the prices of gondola rides, then looked at the challenges of getting into one of the things. We decided to pass. Maybe if I was forty years younger and forty kilos lighter (and forty thousand Euros richer) I’d have had a go. We watched them glide by without a regret.

I think it was something like 60 Euro for half an hour. We passed.
The view from the top of the bridge (previous pic). The open area to the right is the ferrovia piazza – the railway station square and building. In thre foreground to the right is the waterbus terminal for Ferrovia. Grand Canal, Venice, 2018.

On our way back from Piazza San Marco, we saw a notice for a music performance. A small string orchestra, performing classical music. We booked tickets and returned later that evening, just on sunset, to the palazzo near Ponte Rialto. The tide was high, lapping the base of the bridge and I was determined to paddle.

High tide lapping at the doors. Venice 2018.
The water was pleasantly warm. Venice 2018.

The music performance was divine. A splendid way to spend our last evening in Venezia. The performers were all in Renaissance costume which also fascinated me, with my own involvement in various events requiring medieval or Renaissance clothing.

As the waterbus took us back to our stop at Ferrovia, so close to our hotel, we could see by the moonlight and the city lights that the tide was even higher. A combination of sinking sands and rising sea levels will be the death knell of this city, but for now it lives on, a delightful, fascinating place to visit.


And the ‘nasty smells in July’ of Venice? All we could smell was the clean salt smell of the ocean, overlaid with various aromas of cinnamon, chocolate and fried onions.

I long to go back.

The Ultimate Ingredient

Bees foraging in the wild herbs, Greece.

I’d never much cared for Greek Salad before we visited Greece in 1990.

Theatre of Dinoysus, Athens. The dark dots are packaged cushions, for more comfortable seating for an evening performance.

But just over the road from our hotel in Athens, where polished tables with dusty chairs were shaded by huge-leafed trees in the park, we had to revise our opinion. A TV was perched at one end of the row of tables, while old men sat with coffee or retsina, flicking worry beads rhythmically as they watched US sitcoms subtitled in Arabic and dubbed in Greek. The picture wavered every time a bus passed, running over the cable leading to the TV from the kitchen across the street. The waiter brought our salads, dodging buses. We were tired and jet-lagged, and our appetites didn’t anticipate much of worth. But oh! The bliss of full-flavoured tomatoes, soaked in greenish-gold olive oil, with crunchy sweet cucumbers and feta from the mountains! Sprinkled over all was a wild mixture of herbs, hauntingly familiar yet unique. The heavy bread was drying out fast in the Athenian summer heat, but that only made it more suitable to mop the juices from our fingers, plates and bowls. An old man at the next table raised his glass to us with a smile and “Stin ygeiá sas!” (“to your good health!”) nodding in approval at our enjoyment. Suddenly we belonged, and everything seemed so right. The heat, the dust, the barefoot children playing in the fountain — it all was part of our enjoyment of this welcoming city.

A tired, jet-lagged Miss Eight, with her grandma, on the first day in Athens, at the taverna in the park. Athens, 1990.
“The Runner”, artwork in Omonia Square, Athens, 1990.

Later, on our tour on the Greek mainland, we wandered among tall, golden, fluted columns and admired archaic carvings, floating marble draperies against lapis lazuli sea. Each evening we were introduced to some wonderful Greek salads, even better than our first taste in Athens. I took mental notes of the best meals, to try and remember which ingredients made them so special.

A perfect Greek salad in the perfect setting. Paros, Greece, 2018.

Finally in our flat on Crete it was my turn to prepare this wonderful summer meal from memory, using locally bought ingredients. Each morning we’d slip out the door an hour after sunrise and shop with the local people for fresh produce. After breakfasting on home-made yoghurt and local honey, with fresh crusty bread still warm from the baker, I could be found in the kitchen cutting up tomatoes, cucumbers, onion and red capsicum, and putting it all into a bowl with olives and feta. We’d leave the salad to marinate in wine vinegar and olive oil, while we went out for the morning. But the salad, tasty as it was, was missing something. Without the sprinkle of dried herbs, I couldn’t re-create some of our most memorable meals.

We stopped for the view of the gorge, and smelt the wild herbs, crushed under the car’s wheels. Crete, 1990.

However, on one of our drives up into the hills, when we stopped to admire the stark contrast of craggy mountains against the perfect blue sea, I smelt a familiar but elusive fragrance. The herbs! Our car’s wheels had crushed the very plant, growing wild, that would provide the finishing touch to our lunch. I searched, following my nose, until I saw an insignificant little bush just behind the back tyre. Widening my gaze, I realised that the whole hillside was covered with the same low-growing, purple-flowered plant. Stooping low, I picked a sprig, instantly releasing that wonderful, heady fragrance, redolent of oregano and thyme with a hint of mint. The tiny flower distinctively identified the plant as a member of Labiatae, a non-poisonous plant family, but I could identify it no further. Picking a small bunch of these wild herbs, I laid the harvest on the car shelf under the dash and we got underway again. The air was so hot and dry, that the herbs were crisply brittle in a very short time. I sympathised with the plants, as I swigged the last warm dregs from my water bottle.

Spili, Crete, 1990. The village is perched on the side of the mountain, wild mint grew from cracks in the buildings.

We were driving into the mountains, ever higher, winding over impossibly narrow roads. Suddenly as if by magic, a tiny village appeared, with terraced houses clinging precariously to the hillside. The road took a sharp bend to the right as we parked beside the domed, white-painted village church. This place was special — water was plentiful, where the rest of Greece was in drought. This was Spili, where an ancient Venetian fountain channelled delicious spring water from the mountain side, through lion faces of stone.

Spili’s Venetian fountain, ice-cold on a hot day. Crete, 1990.
My husband dunking his head, Miss Eight beside him, and my parents-in-law filling water bottles.
Miss Three and Master Six, cooling off and drinking their fill.
Dripping wet children. Spili, Crete, 1990.

We hurried to the fountain eagerly, filling our water bottles with the deliciously pure spring water, wetting our faces and shirts deliberately in the process. Master Six put his face under one of the lion’s heads, Miss Three had to be lifted so she could put her starfish fingers inside the lion’s mouth with a little squeal of mock terror. I was reminded of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. The water gushed with force, chilled from its journey through rock strata. Down in the square below, a fountain splashed, fed by the overflow from the spring.

The water flowed from Venetian lions which gushed into troughs wrapping around the square. Spili, Crete, 1990.

We were cool at last, refreshed and no longer thirsty. Reluctantly moving on from this miraculous oasis, we passed rustic shops selling the basic staples of this village – raki, bread, fresh vegetables, coffee. I saw herbs smelling similar to the ones I had picked, but with a larger leaf. Stumbling through the Greek alphabet, I realised the plant was wild oregano; but unlike any oregano I’d met before. The flavour was stronger, wilder, more complete.

Weeds grew plentifully on the side of the road. I bent down and picked a large sprig of mint growing through cracked cement. It married wonderfully with the scent of wild oregano which now filled the car on our return.

The worry beads I’d just purchased lay glinting up at me from my lap. Three sets for three people. One set for my neighbour – pure brass, glistening gold. The next for my dear friend, so full of life – ruby red, creamy lustre, interspersed with brass. The last set were Mediterranean blue, winking up at me like a mermaid’s eyes. They are with me now, reminding me of magical places.

Worry beads, komboloi, bought in Spili, Crete, in 1990. Still precious.

The meal was complete that day. We discovered that the final ingredient in a country salad is the country itself. By the time we reached Rethymnon that evening, the mint and the unknown herbs were crisp. My fingers easily crumbled the wild mountain herbs into a jar, with the aromatic combination sprinkled over fresh feta providing a finishing touch to our salads. The spring water from Spili filled our glasses as we drank to this wonderful place.

Wild thyme in flower at an old Venetian fort. Palaorchora, Crete, 2018.

For many years I thought that mysterious plant was Greek oregano, which will substitute well but it wasn’t the wild herb I’d picked on that Cretan hillside. It wasn’t until our return to Crete in 2018 that we saw hillsides covered with cushions of wild thyme, in flower. That was it!

Milking the sheep and goats up in the mountain village. Crete, 2018.

In 2018 we bought a jar of thyme honey from a roadside stall near Elafonisi. Drizzled over home-made yogurt, made from sheep and goats that we’d actually met personally (although they weren’t really into conversation) we had some wonderful but simple breakfasts. But our love of a good Greek salad — ah, they can never be beaten!

Down the Rabbit Hole…

In Sydney, Australia, thanks to Covid and the outbreak of the delta strain, we’ve been stuck in isolation for nine weeks so far, with the prospect of another nine to go, at least.

What’s a writer to do?

Bunting on the tourney field. Blacktown Medieval Fayre, 2021.
The excitement of a medieval faire — Skill-at-Arms at Ironfest, Lithgow 2017. That’s a kirtle the lady warrior is wearing.


On 22 May, a few weeks before the lockdown, we went to Blacktown Medieval Fayre. We went with my friend, the director of the Renaissance choir, and we wore costumes from our choir performances, blending in totally. However, as is often the case, I felt my dress was a little too modern, I felt a bit of a medieval fake. Once again, I resolved to do some sewing. I bought a hat, a capuchon with a long liripipe, it looked easy to sew another like it. But I also knew that there are many ways to wear a capuchon. Very exciting! The capuchon was very much headwear for all weathers. it could be worn over the face in cold, wet weather, or rolled back in warmer weather. And to be different, it could also be worn upside down, in much the same way as a baseball cap these days is deliberately worn backwards.

I spent some time looking at displays with relevance to my Scottish ghost story, where my protagonists have to live off the land in an effort to survive harsh conditions.

Woodwork, medieval-style. Making a leg for a stool. Blacktown Medieval Fayre, 2021.
Falconry — Australian wedge-tailed eagle (Zoro), a bird fit for royalty. Blacktown Medieval Fayre, 2021.

There have been some things about my fifteenth century Scottish ghost story that have been bugging me. Did they have chimneys in farm cottages in Scotland in the fifteenth century? What about clothing?

I had thought I’d had it right, but going back over my manuscript, I realised that some details were too modern. But, of course, the more I researched, the more I found that was peripheral to my area of study.

Family selfie at Blacktown Medieval Fayre, 2021. Myself, hubby and hairy older son (a Templar).


With nothing else to do (other than edit two anthologies, neither of which can be launched during lockdown anyway) I explored everything and discovered some wonderful personalities in the process.

I can now also make an egg fried rice that Uncle Roger would acclaim. But that’s another story entirely.

They say write what you know. So when we went into lockdown, I knew there was no time like total isolation in the present to immerse myself in the past via the internet and YouTube and really get to grips with all the life skills I might need in order to survive a fifteenth century Scottish winter.

While looking up exactly how to wear a capuchon (would my protagonist have worn one, perhaps?) I found other videos only peripherally connected to my area of study. But outside the house, the days were short and cold, so I snuggled under heavy clothes and studied on. Meanwhile I grabbed the medieval costumes of family members that were sadly in need of repair, and got to work with needle and thread.

One video I found which I went back to, was Elin Abrahamsson and how to sew a medieval kirtle. Worth a try.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRvzUQ8v9Ss

Along the way I learned that hand-sewing could actually be very strong. In medieval times and even later in the Renaissance, clothing was kept carefully, what people wore was a reflection of their status and, unless you were nobility, people made their own clothes. How hard could it be?

I rummaged through my fabric stash. Hmm. Not much there. Shops closed, so no trips to Spotlight. I rang a friend who has a larger fabric stash and asked for help. We did a Covid-safe fabric hand over, and I found some heavy cotton fabric, a sort of tan-coloured canvas.

The instructions on the video were simple — don’t waste fabric. Rectangles and triangles. You measure how high you are, how round you are, work out how much hem you want and calculate it out. Then mark it on the fabric with chalk and a ruler, then cut it out.

I got out the sewing machine. The only place I could set it up in our crowded house was the driveway, on a sunny day. Hubby hung a sail overhead and I did my best. I really tried. But the sewing machine needs to be serviced. Again, not possible in lockdown.

Sewing in isolation, in the driveway.
Sketching in the desired neckline with a pencil.
Cutting out the neckline.

I had to sew by hand. With one sewing needle left and no matching thread, again I had to make do. I chose a thread colour as close as possible in tone, but darker. I sat and hand-stitched long seams in every spare minute. Watching TV or looking over my husband’s shoulder while he fell down the same rabbit hole as me. We started with Vikings, worked our way through Queen Victoria’s cuisine (there was a lot of it) then worked our way back again. As I worked my way through the Tudors I noticed some detail on various styles of headwear worn by the women. I’d had plans to make one of those box-style headwear things worn by various wives of Henry VIII until I found out how they’re put together. That’s a big NOPE from me. You needed a dresser, a seamstress and a large packet of pins just to get dressed each morning. Nothing elaborate for me. After the dress I’m going to sew myself a light linen coif, the small white cap that all people wore on their heads, men and women. Underclothing, on body and on head, was necessary in order to keep the more expensive outer wear clean and in good condition.

King St, Newtown, July 2021. Eerily empty roads due to lockdown.
We only were permitted to be there because we were visiting a vaccination centre at RPA Hospital.
Hand-stitching while I wait in the car for my son to get his Covid shot. It was a wait of several hours each time.


In lockdown we have had strict limits on where we could go. One exception (and I rang officials to check) was getting vaccinated. On the day my son had to get his first Covid vaccine, he had to go into inner Sydney. Public transport would not be a good idea, so I drove him. Of course I stayed in the car, listened to the car radio and sewed the seams on my kirtle. He got needlework done on him (Covid vaccination) while I did my own needlework. Travelling there and back was strange, driving on empty roads which normally would be choked with traffic. We shopped for groceries on the way home and it was his turn to wait in the car. Only one person per household permitted to shop. One person per day.

Back at home, after some long study of the Plantagenets (the Henrys, with a few Richards and a John thrown in) my husband was working his way through Scottish history, notably the border rievers. It felt oddly familiar to be hand-stitching a kirtle while watching a docudrama about Rob Roy. The dress I was sewing looked like the ones in the video.

Hand-felled inside seams for added strength.
Attaching sleeves. Again, pin while wearing and adjust fit individually.

One thing I learned through this whole process was that history is so often about the rulers, the leaders, the manipulators. Whereas I am writing about the ordinary people, the day-to-day lives of the majority. I felt glad to immerse myself in the process of sewing my own dress.

The finished kirtle. Finished except for ornamental trim.
Kirtle with capuchon. Our friend thought I had dressed as St Benedict. Apparently it was the right day…

I’ve now started to go back through my novel (the Scottish ghost story from the fifteenth century) and refine the details on clothing and lifestyle. When I mention the young woman mending her brother’s undershift by the fire, I want people to feel the scorch of the fire on their faces, hear the crackle, see the flash of firelight on needle and smell the burning peat. Writing has to be immersive, if the reader’s experience is to similarly be so.

Capuchon upside down. Needs work.


With inside seams finished, I sewed the hem of the dress during a Zoom writers meeting this afternoon. When we went outside to photograph the dress, an old friend was walking his dog past our fence. He didn’t bat an eyelid when he saw me in kirtle and capuchon. Perhaps he was questioning my sanity, after so many weeks of lockdown. We chatted from a safe distance while we got ready to take our photos.

Of course, the dress project is not finished. There’s still another nine weeks to go, at least, in this lockdown. And now it’s time to trim the dress. I’m going to have a go at tablet weaving. But first, that coif…

Cité de Carcassonne – Fairytale Fortress

I’ve written about Carcassonne, France, in the past but it definitely bears a longer examination.

Our travel agent, knowing I have difficulty walking, had booked our accommodation ‘within the walls’. We had learned in previous city stays that while this can be more expensive, we save a lot on cab fares, energy and time, a very precious commodity.

We turned off the autoroute onto a lesser road which wound through vineyards and small villages. The sat nav only showed roads, no topography, so when we turned the corner to see the glowing confection of castle towers on top of the hill we were blown away. After seeing so many ruins with just a suggestion that once there was a functioning castle there, here was the Real Deal.

Carcassonne when first seen. It doesn’t look real. France, 2019.

After leaving our car in a tourist car park, we walked in through the big Double D gatehouse of the city walls. The castle is another enclosure inside, with a lot of quaint, historic buildings jettied out over the street.

Jeff, pointing to the many-layered main city gate.
The square holes in the wall above would have held the supporting beams for the timber battlements.
Multi-walled defences — outside the Cité de Carcassonne, France, 2019.
Inside the first wall, another fortress wall. They could keep out anything in Carcassonne.
Note the timber hoarding on the first tower along from the gate, to the right.
A relief map of the double-walled Cité de Carcassonne. The palace itself is at the top of the image, the cathedral to the left. And yes, that is a Roman amphitheatre. They were here too.
Medieval building with jettied upper storey. The former cathedral is just beyond, the car is outside our hotel.
Carcassonne, France, 2019.
The altar of the old cathedral, now Basilica St-Nazaire. Just beautiful.

There were multiple walls, multiple large gates and giant doors on our way into the inner sanctum. It was another scorching hot day and we were exhausted and sweaty by the time we got to the Hotel de la Cité, beside the old cathedral, now called Basilica Ste-Nazaire.

The hotel was a slice of medieval heaven. Air-conditioned (not a medieval thing but very welcome) with the benefit of thick stone walls, we felt cooler immediately inside the front door. We were handed a glass of iced water each, with a slice of lemon. Even before they asked our names for the register!

I had carried a few loose bags of precious things (computer bag, handbag etc) which the hotel reception minded while we went back to our car. Absolutely no parking inside, so we had a parking space allocated outside the walls, with a transfer minibus.

The town of Carcassonne, outside the walls. Our hire car was down there somewhere.

Coming back in by minibus was quite an experience. The walls of the gates were so close we could have touched them. I could see streaks of various car paints on them from drivers less skilled than ours. There were officials guarding the gates from unauthorised vehicle access. The difficulty was made greater by a right angle within the entrance, so you couldn’t simply drive straight through.

The view from the window of our room in Hotel de la Cité. The front door of Basilica Sainte-Nazaire.

Once inside, we were within the walls of the old city but still outside the castle itself. The area inside the walls is much smaller than for other old cities we visited (such as Avignon) but still allowed for a number of shops and the former cathedral.

Up on the walls. We entered via the castle. In the background is the former cathedral.

We’d arrived just after midday so we had plenty of time to explore. I’ve already described our exploration of the castle towers and city walls, but suffice it to say, we were having a ball. So many features of castles that I needed to better understand for my writing, things I had only seen as ruins in so many areas, were here restored to glory. In fact, Carcassonne never fell to arms: only once, to siege in 1209 during a time when the city was controlled by the Cathars. That siege was led by Simon de Montfort, who was perhaps the greatest, most capable knight and tactician of his time. It would have taken someone of his capability to even have a chance. The city was forced to surrender due to lack of food getting through. The people were allowed to leave, but with no possessions and clad only in their underwear. Reports say “in their shirts” but this is a reference to the undershirts, or shifts, that people wore next to their skin as underclothing. Simon de Montfort, of course, was rewarded with stewardship of Carcassonne and promptly began making his own improvements to its fortifications.

From around C13, close-up of knight’s effigy on a tomb. inside the palace, Carcassonne, France.
Inside the castle. Now open to the sky, this would have been two levels that we see here, a large fireplace on the first floor directly in front with two bench seats by a window to its left. The square blocks would be where a floor once was.
Above is a guard walk. The large windows indicate an outlook of relative safety.



We began our walk of the castle walls and learned, too late, that it was a one way path. Up stairs, down other stairs, up more stairs. Walking along the battlements, looking at the places in the outer walls where the temporary wooden hoardings were erected, hung off the top of the stone walls, to give defenders an even greater advantage to drop projectiles onto attackers below. Carcassonne was the first castle to ever do this, and to great effect.

Section of timber hoarding or battlement, which hung out from the outer wall of the castle. As if it needed even more defence!
Information poster on the hoarding.

Contrary to popular opinion, they did not drop boiling oil through the murder holes and macchiolations. Oil would have been too precious to waste. However, burning hot sand would be just as effective at getting inside maille or between plates of armour. Stripping off scalding hot metal to save blistering skin would have been equally fatal, with defending archers just waiting for that opportunity.

Amazing details in the stonework.
On top of the walls. Beautiful stonework.
“Enemy below! Fetch the hot sand!”
The archer’s eye view, covering the gate below.
A view through arrow-loop to the inside of the city walls, just in case the enemy got this far.
The top of a lookout tower, facing outwards.
Guarding the approaches. “None shall pass!”
Never forget, this is rich wine country.

I could sympathise with the attacking soldiers being rained with burning sand, as the heat climbed higher into the afternoon, and no way back. The walls of Carcassonne are double-layered, with strong defences in between. Any enemy soldier making it that far wouldn’t have stood a chance.

We did wonder, as we clambered up yet another long, spiral staircase, at how ladies in long, layered skirts would ever get back down. The towers were well-supplied with garderobes, those long-drop toilets handing off the side wall. Something else to drop on attackers… but at least there would be no need to head downstairs to find a loo.

We were almost at the heatstroke stage by late afternoon when we got back to the hotel pool. A quick swim to cool off, then we explored the former cathedral.

Seen from up on the walls — our hotel courtyard. So near, yet so far…
The view of the Pyrenees in the distance.

A saunter around the old city, and a sunset dinner with the Pyrenees on the horizon as a backdrop. Oh, I could have stayed for so much longer! My mind kept going back to Hilaire Belloc’s poem, Tarantella.


Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of the tar?

Even the ATM had its ancient touches.
Yep. Even in France.
Inquisition museum. Pass…
Costumes were available for sale everywhere. I did check the price of this kirtle and cloak. Out of my league!

Next morning we were driven back to our car, in the car park outside the walls. Sad to leave, but off to our next adventure in ancient walled cities of France.

As I write this, we’re in lockdown in much of Australia and, unable to sally forth from my own ivory tower, I’ve been going down various rabbit-holes familiarising myself with history, losing myself in the past. My own fiction writing is currently involving various aspects of medieval life, and so it has been productive research.

More to follow…