Patterns in Kensington and Patterns in My Fingers

 Hello Friends!

I’ve had a very nice few weeks in London going to exhibitions, finding a vintage dollhouse at the charity shop, and learning tunes on my banjo.

Part of an exceptional crochet tableau made by Rita McGurn. On display at Tate Britain in “Women in Revolt.” You can read all about it in my latest article for Modern Daily Knitting.

My banjo is very special to me because I made it. It’s not the only banjo I play, but it’s the one I go to when I’m learning tunes because it feels like an extension of my heart. My Dad and I made our banjos together in Appomattox, Virginia, under the capable and humorous guidance of the late Mike Ramsey. After my Dad passed away in 2016, I felt distant from my banjo and sad when I picked it up. I played other banjos in concert and learned a few new tunes, but I slowly let it drift out of my musical life.

The banjo I made about twenty years ago. My Dad had its twin. I get to play his banjo when I visit my Mom and I love that. Though we made them in the same week with the same materials, they sound entirely different. That’s what’s great about instruments. They are alive in their own way.

Recently, I was knitting and listening to one of my very favorite records by Jake and Sarah Owen. Dad and I saw them at Merlefest twenty years ago and they set our hair on fire. Sarah played the fiddle and Jake played gourd banjos which he’d made. Her voice was high and plaintive. His was plain and honest. To this day, hearing them transports me to a time when Dad and I were learning to play clawhammer banjo. I was writing my first songs and we were going to music festivals on the hunt for sounds that made our hair stand up. 

Last week, when I heard Jake singing “Red Rocking Chair” through the speakers of my computer, I started singing new words to that old tune. This is something that I do and one of the many places from which my songs can spring. If you listen to the Jeni & Billy song “The Hum,” you’ll find that you can take the words and sing them to the tune of “Folsom Prison Blues.” I had just heard a Rockabilly band do a cover of that song at a concert in Liverpool while I was on tour and sitting in with the warm-up act. That night I couldn’t get the rhythm of those words out of my head. So, I wrote words to that rhythm. Separately, Billy had been working on a banjo tune which I’d never heard. When I sang my words, they fit his tune exactly.

This past week, I took my dear handmade banjo off the wall and began learning the finger patterns for “Red Rocking Chair” and it felt like my Dad was all around me, smiling, tapping his foot. He was a monumental foot-tapper when he played music. Dad and I were weaving our old patterns of tunes together in my heart. 

Banjo tunes are patterns. Songs are patterns. Foot-tapping and dancing are patterns. Patterns are everywhere and I love them. They move me through the day with rhythm, song, and color. 

On assignment for Modern Daily Knitting, last week I walked through the London borough of Kensington. It was one of those days where I saw patterns everywhere. Stencils on the of the bright green cab shelter, shells, swirls, and diamonds in the columns of the natural history museum, brickwork and trailing vines on a hidden mews home, ovals and snake trails in iron ore stone, and glitter in a meteorite. This festival of pattern felt like a tune in my day tapped out across my eyes and in my heart. I was happy. I was thinking about the banjo tunes I would play when I got home. I was thinking about making knitting patterns from stone carvings.

My brain was alive with ideas and my Dad seemed nearer in my joy.

I hope you enjoy this little tour of one corner of London. In each caption, I’ve included a link so that you can learn more if your interest is piqued.

Also, if you’re meant to visit London soon, you might enjoy these two exhibitions which I’ve just reviewed for Modern Daily Knitting. It’s the year of elections, according to Time, so get your hat on.

I wish you peace.

And kindness, always,


London cabman’s shelter. There are only 13 left. Of the 13, most still operate as Cabbie’s shelters, the inside still strictly for black cab license holders. Anyone however can grab a hot drink or a bacon sandwich from the hatch. I love the stencils in the transoms and the apex of the roof. The designs remind me of the pokerwork on my Dad’s Hohner melodeons.
Mews homes were converted from the buildings behind grand terrace houses. They were originally used to house carriages and horses, but the majority have now been turned into pretty little homes. This one is quite large and rambling compared to most and they have sustained an exceptional vine (clematis?).
Columns at the entrance to the Natural History Museum. I can imagine these as knitting or embroidery patterns. All of this wonder came from the imagination and research of Alfred Waterhouse.
Birdy and Meerkat (?) atop a column at the Natural History Museum.
This rock made me cry. I was so moved by its swirling beauty and the history of life contained with in it. The colored bands in this rock reveal a dramatic increase in atmospheric oxygen, a critical moment for the evolution of life on Earth. Australian. 2.6 Billion years old!
At 4.5 billion years old, the Imilac meteorite dates back to the beginning of our solar system. Found in Chile.

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Gee Bee Dollhouse aka Tudor Toys! Made in Hull starting in 1947. This model probably dates from 1973. You can read more about it and my Lancashire dollhouse made by the same company and given to me by my friends Chris and Ian here.

Last month, I shared an unreleased song, “Ice Cream Will Always Be Here” with my New Song Club (what Substack calls paid subscribers). I’ll always have plenty of stories here on Substack in my newsletter for everyone. But this year, I thought I’d create a special paid series of unreleased or new songs once a month. If you’d like to join along, click below.

Ice Cream Will Always Be Here

JAN 23
Ice Cream Will Always Be Here

It must be something contrary in my nature that has persuaded me that a song featuring ice cream would be appropriate for January. But, nevertheless, when I considered which unreleased song I wanted to share with you, this is the one that pulled at me.

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