Sunday, 27 June 2021

Hat trick - three new Olney hats while on holiday

As a rule I don't wear hats much. But they have their uses for specific occasions and weather conditions. I use a blue cotton sun hat pretty often at home and elsewhere - and especially over my face, if I want to doze off during the afternoon. 

I have a dark grey bobble-hat for cold weather...

...and a black 'fur' hat, Russian-style, for biting winds and snow. 

A few years back I bought myself a black fedora for extra-sunny or extra-hot days, and that has seen plenty of use. Here it is on a particularly warm and bright day in June 2020:

If I wear a hat like this, I don't have to wear sunglasses. 

So, that was deep winter and high summer taken care of. What about spring and autumn? I didn't have a hat specifically for these seasons, when the weather can be very pleasant but might have a chilly edge to it, especially later in the day. And I might be out in light rain, in a coat that doesn't have a hood. 

Well, I hadn't given hats for spring and autumn any priority, but while on holiday recently, when taking a look at a rural emporium deep in the Northumbrian countryside, I came across a collection of hats specially made for outdoor types wanting to have cosy heads, and yet still be stylish. Or at least stylish in the way that well-heeled farming wives and girlfriends might want to be. You know: something to wear with one's Burberry jacket.

The information leaflet at Nunnykirk Caravan and Motorhome Club Site had mentioned Robson and Cowan at Scots' Gap as a must-visit country shop. Apparently they sold 'everything' but food. Well, I like browsing ironmongers and hardware shops in towns, and I absolutely love visiting country emporia. They are usually relaxed rambling places that sell all kinds of things you suddenly realise you haven't seen on sale in ordinary shops and must have, now that you're here. 

Robson and Cowan was no exception to that, although it was clearly no sleepy, old-fashioned business but a well-staffed, much-visited supply centre run with efficiency and organisation. A family operation, it was catering not only to busy farmers and countryside contractors with no time to browse - its pitch was aimed at their wives and daughters too. They really did have almost everything on their shelves. They didn't (as the CAMC site information leaflet had said) sell food, although nearby - apparently on their premises, but perhaps a separate business - was a small grocery shop. And they didn't sell lounge furniture and beds, or at least I didn't see where. But they did sell white goods and all kinds of electric appliances for the home (or should I say, the farmhouse), including big fridges, freezers and TVs, and everything you might need for the garden (or smallholding). They sold fuel, and in fact had a garage operation across the road, clearly slanted towards servicing tractors and cultivation machinery. 

And they sold country clothing and boots, most of it specialist. Certainly, all you could ask for in the equestrian line (horse-riding is big in these parts). But they could kit you out in most kinds of serious country clothing, whether for work or for pleasure. So far as I could judge, they kept to upmarket makes that would give long service in tough conditions. That was no surprise. Northumberland in late May or early June can be delightful. But the winters must be pretty harsh. It would be a waste of money to buy cheap items that wouldn't be up to the job. That said, I thought their prices were very fair. I will look in next year, as I will probably be in the area again.

More on Robson and Cowan, and what I bought there, in a moment. First, a digression on Scots' Gap itself.

It's a very small community at the junction of well-used local roads, but set in almost empty countryside. Northumberland north of Hadrian's wall, and west of the A1, is sparsely populated. There are very few proper towns in this big hinterland. There's Wooler and there's Rothbury. But they are only small places by most counties' standards. There's Bellingham (which I quickly learned is pronounced 'Belling-jam', not 'Belling-ham'), even smaller. And that's about it for towns. All other communities are villages, some of them little more than a collection of cottages, built for farm or estate workers in the past. Scots' Gap is hardly big enough to be called a village. These three shots (looking west, east and north from a T junction) show most of what there is:

You can see almost everything that is residential from that T junction (in the middle shot). There are however two commercial enterprises that explain the significance of Scots' Gap in the past and the present. On the south side of the T junction is a livestock market, hereabouts called a mart. I found out that it's one of a group of marts based at Hexham, a large town to the south, on the Tyne. The mart at Scots' Gap has been going for a long time, and given the very wide area that Scots' Gap serves, made it the place to go to for livestock farmers all around. So there are sheep and cattle pens galore, and an auction building for the weekly livestock sales. When I saw it, it all looked in good condition, a going concern; but in conversation I learned that its future is not secure.  

The other commercial undertaking is Robson and Cowan. This is their garage, for tractor and machinery servicing, and which is also an ordinary filling station:

And this is their main complex of buildings, the part I headed for. The small grocery shop (which may be an independent business) is broadside to the entrance off the road, with that white car parked in front of it:

If you think I'm looking down from a former railway bridge onto former station buildings with post-closure additions, you'd be right. Scots' Gap was once a railway junction, on the Morpeth-Redesmouth-Hexham line, with a branch off to Rothbury. These lines were built in the 1860s. Scots' Gap station closed to passengers in 1952, shortly after I was born, and it finally closed to freight in 1966. 

Obviously the shipment of livestock to and from the places just mentioned was the line's chief concern, sheep and cattle dealing at Scots' Gap already existing before the railway came. The line must have been amply busy with livestock movements until larger lorries became the more convenient way to move animals around. The former station buildings have become offices and on-the-spot homes for staff. The retail trading is done from the warehouse buildings, which have been erected partly upon the old railway track bed. You can still see the line of the former platform.

The railway bridge, which carries the modern road westwards, remains in excellent condition and serves as an open-air storage facility. The Rothbury line used to diverge to the right shortly after passing under this bridge. (The splendid Rothbury station buildings survive as a handsome town hub, complete with cinema and boutique shopping centre)  

Let's make our way to the entrance of Robson and Cowan's emporium, and see what's inside.

The bottom picture above was taken from the steps that lead up to the big country-clothing section. There were other sections tucked away around corners and in all the nooks and crannies of this fascinating place. If ever I move to Scots' Gap or the vicinity (and most properties would be within my reach, given the difference between Mid Sussex and rural Northumberland prices) Robson and Cowan could help me equip my new home with almost anything I might need. (However, only accelerating climate change, if it made Sussex too hot for summer comfort, would make me up sticks and propel me northward) Here's the white goods and electricals section. It looks pokey, but everything's here.

Let's now go up to the country clothing section, and see what I bought there. They had a good range of hats, and I saw that I needed one. Not for the coming summer. No, a hat for autumn and winter. 

The nicest (from my point of view) were all made by Olney. Now Olney had recently become a victim of the coronavirus pandemic, and had had to cease their manufacture. Their stockists around the country couldn't trade during the lockdowns, and so, with nobody placing fresh orders, Olney folded. A sudden and very sad end to a long-established hat-making business. Olney were particularly noteworthy for their men's headwear - straw boaters, deerstalkers, flat caps for sporting gentlemen - you name it. In more recent decades they had diversified into country hats for women. It was these that had caught my eye.   

I tried several on, all different. This was one of the more unusual:

The lady who served me - we had a good chat - said that this was one of a new and (for Olney) daring range of women's hats. They'd got in a new designer to create them. Olney were keen to penetrate the stylish end of the country hat scene. 

All now blown away, of course. I thought about it. These hats were the last of the Olneys! Once sold, there would be no more, ever. Should I buy more than one hat then? What about three of them - say an investment of £100 or so, all told?  A voice within said 'Yes!' I'd have three 'different' hats of high quality that would last me the rest of my life, so far as hats-for-country-walking were concerned. People would say to me, 'That's an unusual hat.' And I would casually reply, 'Yes; it's an Olney, don't you know.' And they would then collapse to the ground, gasping in envy, for I'd be wearing a now-rare collector's item. 

Hmm! I wouldn't be the only woman thinking along those lines. The only reason they were still available at Robson and Cowan's was the remoteness of Scots' Gap. But they would soon be sold. I made my final choice, paid for them, and left, feeling very much that I'd been adroit. As with most things, dither and you're done. 

Time for lots of selfies! Here's one of the first, next to a Robson and Cowan van:

Oh, by the way, I couldn't resist buying a shepherd's crook. There had been lots of them in a corner.

I thought a shepherd's crook would make a usefully long (but light - it was made of aluminium) walking stick for rougher or boggy ground, or where (as in the New Forest) it was frequently necessary to vault over ditches. And in any case, great for fending off attacking eagles, brutish sheep bent on savagery, or ponies eager to sink their fangs into my neck. Or for hooking down branches laden with forbidden fruit. (I tried the crook out later in Kielder Forest. Yes, it would work, for particular walks. It wasn't a complete waste of money. But there would be no abandonment of my usual stick) 

Back at the caravan, I examined my purchases. Three very different types of hat, all of them by Olney. First up, their 'Minnie' hat, that natty tweed creation already glimpsed above. Resplendent in the colours of autumn, with matching suede flowers as decoration:

Was it too twee? Surely not. Perfect for watching polo. Or for Glastonbury.

Next, Olney's 'Jess' hat, which the sharp-eyed will have noticed in another shot above. A floppy affair in grey and green, which for some reason made me think of lop-eared rabbits. It's on the left, in the topmost shot below:

Winsome and winning, I think this is a super hat. I admit not everyone would go for it quite as enthusiastically. I shall be trying it out on unsuspecting victims as the year proceeds. Watch out, it's coming.

And finally to Olney's 'Annabel' hat. Unlike the first two, this is a very practical hymn in waxed cotton, with a waterproof membrane underneath, making it highly suitable for wet days, if not de rigueur. It's on the right in the shot just below:

Reddish-brown, with a twist of tweed, 'Annabel' is styled to resemble the cloche hats of the early 1930s, as evidenced in this poster, and this photograph, on exhibition at the National Trust's Ickworth House in Suffolk during 2019:

Wishing to try out its water-resistant capabilities, I wore this hat when out near Sandringham and when walking around Cromer (both in Norfolk) on a dull and moist day. It acquitted itself well. Nobody laughed. 

Why, I look almost cute! A trick of the light. Dare I say, a hat trick?

Band aid

It was Phase Two of my new-smartwatch customisation. Having got three different clock faces installed, to use as the mood or occasion took me, my attention next turned to the band that held the Versa 3 to my wrist. 

It had come with a boring black silicone band. I wanted to change that. I'd start with a white band from FitBit's own website. I expected something that was brilliant white, the same as my previous FitBit had come with. But no. FitBit had gone all subtle. It wasn't a bright white at all. Indeed, it looked grey, and at first I thought they had sent me the wrong band. 

Well, it was off-white - FitBit playfully called it 'Lunar White'. Me, I thought 'mushroom white' was more appropriate. It wasn't actually grey. It was in the brown part of the colour spectrum, but a very light brown. And yet not dark enough to be called 'fawn' or 'beige' or 'light coffee', let alone 'magnolia'. All that said, it would clearly go pretty well with a variety of human skin tones, mine included, and would look 'normally white' against a particularly dark skin. It wasn't at all unattractive, just not what I thought it would be. But I could be content with it, if I found nothing else that I preferred.

And this new 'Lunar White' band went reasonably well with the three clock faces I'd selected:

I was especially glad that the 'Lunar White' band suited the best-liked railway-clock design. This was still true in various other lighting conditions:

You'll notice that by now I'd tweaked the colours on the clock face to improve its legibility even further. Well, to make it look more distinctive at any rate! (More recently that dark yellow day/date box has become light yellow)

Meanwhile, there are two other bands in the pipeline, both of them silicone, both with more conventional buckles, one in a whiter white, the other in a bright red. They are coming all the way from China, and therefore delivery is taking up to fifteen working days. But I expect them to arrive during the coming week or so. They will undoubtedly be more exciting to look at, but if they steal the show from the watch itself, or are not so comfortable to wear, or the quality isn't as good as FitBit's own 'Lunar White' band, then I will just keep them in reserve. 

So, watch this space. (Is there a pun in there?)