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My Fenland garden in the autumn

I don’t know how you discovered this site, but I’m glad you did. There’s all sorts of stuff here.  I’ve been an archaeologist for over forty years and have excavated several major sites, mostly in the Fens of eastern England. I’ve also tried to bring archaeology to a wider audience, with a number of books, radio and television programmes, of which Time Team is the best known. When not writing or digging, I’m also a sheep farmer and keen gardener. But like most people, I get bees in my bonnet – obsessions, call them what you like. Most of  my worries are about the general disregard for the achievements of people in the past and the failure of politicians, both local and national, to learn the lessons of  history. Hence the title of this blog: In The Long Run. So to sum up, this will be the place to see stuff about archaeology, gardening, farming and rural life, books, broadcasting, history and the occasional intemperate rant. It won’t be very formal, because I don’t ‘do’ formality. But I do hope it’ll be fun.

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London’s Olympic Park: A Sign of Hope

It doesn’t seem very long ago that I was researching for material to include in my book The Making of the British Landscape. I well remember walking through Birkenhead Park, the modern world’s first urban park (1847) intended for the use of townspeople. It was a bright sunny day , the park had recently been refurbished and was looking gorgeous. That particular walk in the park had a profound effect on me, because it set me thinking about the relationship of the past and the present. Those far-sighted individuals who established municipal parks like Birkenhead, and New York’s Central Park (which was heavily influenced by it) were not thinking about their own ‘legacy’, to use a horrible modern term, but were concerned about the future well-being of ordinary people. And of course they were spending public money, whether raised in local taxes or by subscription.

Until very recently it was usual to treat the land of Britain, both urban and modern, as something to be used, and then abandoned, without any thought for the future or for the general ‘look’ or appearance of the surrounding landscape. So gravel pits, to use a particularly glaring example, were quarried-out and then simply left to flood and rot, with rusting machines, followed by decades of fly-tipped rubbish. The same could be said for old factory sites, railway sidings, airfields and so forth. Nobody worried about the future.

But since the 1970s that has changed. Today, Planners make stringent demands on people like gravel quarry operators – and quite right too. Similarly, the expenditure of vast sums of public money on prestige projects, such as the 2012 London Olympics, cannot be justified in terms of the event alone: no, today we demand that there must be some benefit for the public at large. Of course, people are human and will always promise pie in the sky in order to attract hard cash. In the case of the 2012 Olympics we were assured that the Games would inspire the population to take more exercise and eat fewer calories. But of course that didn’t happen. Only politicians would have believed that sort of glib rubbish. So as a nation we still waddle proudly about showing the world our folds of fat through obscenely tight leggings or T-shirts. And will someone please tell me, why is it that overweight people in the UK always choose horizontal stripes? It’s so defiantly British. The other ‘legacy’ benefit we were promised was the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which opened last April, after over a year’s extensive restoration and refurbishment. More to the point from my landscape historian’s perspective, it was the first major municipal park to open in the capital city for over a century. So I had to see it.

Anyhow, Last Thursday I finished the first revision of Alan Cadbury’s second mystery and I felt absolutely knackered. I needed to do something to relax and turn my brain back to the here-and-now. So I arranged to go and visit my daughter in London and she suggested we visit the Olympic Park, which is quite near to where she lives. Saturday was a typical late November day: wet and overcast: not, you might suppose, the best day for strolling through a park.

We left the farm early and put the dogs to bed in their kennels, after a walk through the wood where we kicked-up the leaves all around us. Our new puppy, Pen, which I’ll introduce in a future blog post, ran around at white-hot speed, seeing-off Muntjac deer left and right. We caught the train at Kings Lynn and headed south. Eventually, and after a very pleasant, if crowded journey in the London Overground, where two young women very kindly gave me and Maisie their seats, we arrived at the Westfield Shopping Centre. There we ate noodles – and very cheap, too. The place was heaving with people, all intent on having a relaxing afternoon.

Then we walked in the park and I must confess, I was astounded. It was far, far more than just a converted set of sports facilities: it had been laid-out by people who appreciated views and vistas.  And it wasn’t just a conversion. Having thought about and visited many parks I could see that this one, too, had been structured from the outset to make the most of its setting. Indeed, several times I was put in mind of ‘Capability’ Brown or Humphrey Repton. I’m aware that sounds pretentious, but what the hell: it was how I felt at the time. And that strange red metal tower, the Orbit, that looks from one angle as if it’s collapsing, then from somewhere else, as if it’s about to spring into space. I must admit, when I read about it in newspapers at the time of the Olympics I wasn’t very impressed: essentially it looked a gimmicky mess. All the journalists sneered and scoffed. And like everyone else I dismissed it as the sort of art that is so characteristic of our times: something that’ll grab sound-bites and is commissioned by a committee. But that is grossly unfair to the real thing, which is wholly different. For a start the scale is truly mind-boggling: it’s VAST! To be honest I could have stayed and looked at it for hours. So I owe a big apology and belated thank-yous to the two imaginations behind it: Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond.

A close-up of The Orbit

A close-up of The Orbit

I thought the treatment of water and the various streams, lakes ponds and boggy areas in the Park was very imaginative and the use of trees wonderful, with lots of oaks. You don’t often see the American River Birch, with its wonderful pale brown papery bark, but here there were dozens of them. Another big first for the park was all the attention they have paid to children and young people. Normally ‘playgrounds’ (which are anything but the sort) are horrible little tarmac’d and sometimes fenced-off areas tacked onto the edges of Victorian municipal parks, but not here. If I’d been thirty years younger I’d have been skateboarding in the Velopark, with the best of them. I also like the strange, spongy red asphalt surfaces in the playgrounds, and made a mental note never to drink wine before walking on them. Could be most upsetting.

London Aquatics centre

London Aquatics Centre

Again, the setting of the London Aquatics Centre, a superb curvaceous, and vast, indoor swimming pool by Zaha Hadid made very imaginative use of different levels in the landscape: sometimes you were looking straight at it; other times it was down there. But it always appeared striking and unusual. And then of course there was the big Olympic Stadium. Not an easy monster to accommodate with any grace or elegance in a designed landscape. So they didn’t make any attempt to conceal it. It’s there, with a Mall-like processional approach. And the building itself was right in your face. Put me in mind of the huge red brick hotel at the front of St. Pancras Station. Both structures oozed confidence and exuded presence. And if you don’t like that – hard luck. But then I have always gone for the confident over the tasteful.

The Olympic Stadium and The Orbit

The Olympic Stadium and The Orbit

So congratulations to all concerned with Her Majesty’s Olympic Park. Even though the day was grey and damp, I could see that you have created a worthy successor to Hyde Park or Regent’s Park – and that’s saying something. I’ll certainly be back in the summer.

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AC2 – an Open Letter

Dear Everyone Kind Enough to Follow this Blog,

I think if I were a follower of In The Long Run, I’d probably be very relieved that my email account was not being bombarded with strange stuff about arcane garden plants or even weirder pieces about an improbable detective/archaeologist called Alan Cadbury. And of course there were those accounts of Time Team shoots: ‘Day 3 and John Gator has fallen into the jaws of his radar scanner’. Or then there are those tales from the farm or from my visits to ancient sites in Britain and elsewhere. All have been absent from your screens for several months now. And I suppose this is by way of an apology.

Of course it’s all my own stupid fault. Maisie told me not to do it, but I pressed ahead, despite her dire warnings. And as she predicted, progress on the new book was checked by the appearance of The Lifers’ Club proofs. Then around springtime it was lambing, closely followed by the proofs of HOME: A Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory. And finally my skin cancer face cream thing happened.  But still I persisted with the second Alan Cadbury book (which I refer to as AC2). So something had to give, and I’m afraid it was this blog.

So I am absolutely determined: I will never repeat the same mistakes in the future. I’ll manage my time far more carefully. And I’ll continue to make impossible resolutions – which I’ll ignore, and then regret. So then I’ll make some more. Can you detect a pattern beginning to emerge?

But now for the good news, if that is, you’re a follower of Alan Cadbury’s exploits. I’m now about ¾ of the way through it, and with luck I’ll have the first draft of the manuscript ready for my Editor, the great Liz Garner, sometime in November (I’d originally promised late October, so that’s not too bad…). Meanwhile I’m about to start completing the necessary forms for Unbound so that they can (a) approve of the project and (b) get an idea of its size and scope. So far I’ve written about 100,000 words, so the final version will probably be about 130-140,000, which is roughly the same size as Lifers (or AC1, as I sometimes think of it). I think we’ll launch the AC2 fund-raising campaign before Christmas, if all goes well.

And I know I should be paying more attention to my Author’s Shed – a blog, in effect – on the Unbound website, but that, too has suffered, like my own blog. There are just too few hours in the day, I’m afraid. I do, however,  very occasionally find time to do stuff for other people. Alan Cadbury gave me this blog post for the DigVentures website. It’s a bit scurrilous, I’m afraid, but I hope I managed to edit out all the actionable passages. Anyhow, here’s the link

http://digventures.us4.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=22a0f4e4c7f72ba483492ac1b&id=c09a2b6558&e=ae1e5dee80

So watch this space and please, please inundate me with bottles of cheap Cava when I do eventually finish the AC2 manuscript, sometime next month. Hopefully. Fingers crossed. With luck.

Anyhow, this picture is what my desk looks like when I set down to work each morning.

My desk, writing AC2The manuscript is on the big screen. The smaller computer on the left is linked to the web and my notes and sketch maps of AC2’s main site in its setting, are to the right. I also have a mini-iPad which I use to check quick things such as the spelling of Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St. Edmunds (well worth a visit, if you like later Bronze Age metalwork, incidentally).

Now it’s back to the creative grind-stone, the quern, the mortar…. Pestle off, Pryor!

Toodlepip.

Francis

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Oh, the Pains of Love and Life(rs)

This was the title of an email I received the other day from a very old and dear friend who worked on my Fengate project back in the latter 1970s. And we’ve stayed in touch ever since. You’ll be glad to know that she gave me permission to reproduce it here. Anyhow, it made me laugh a lot. I haven’t dared show it to AC yet, though.

Dear Agony Doctor,

I am in love, and the object of my affections doesn’t even know I exist. He’s an archaeologist, of course, because I don’t ever meet anyone else. He has a chiselled jaw, steady grey eyes, floppy dark hair and a cute butt. He’s younger than me by about 65 years, but that’s never stopped me before. He’s so brave, but kind of sensitive too? He even cried when his Land Rover blew up? And he’s right-on PC; he even likes the Fuzz! And here’s the bit I really like: he’s a thinker. And he drinks whisky and keeps trying to stop smoking – what not to LURVE???

Trouble is, he’s in love with this draggy moralistic bitch called, oh I can’t remember, but he calls her HARRY, I ask you, what a give-away and it isn’t a REAL relationship, because he keeps getting out of bed to solve Big Problems. I tell you, he wouldn’t get out of bed with a real woman like ME, not for any old tank of maggots.

Do you think he’d notice me if I changed my third Ph.D. from ‘Kicking Arse with the Incas: narratives of power in the Late Horizon of Guatemala’ to ‘It’s all about Incest: new light on the Deverel-Rimbury’???

Please advise.

Love-lorn of Stratford-upon-Avon.

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Bringing-in New Blood from Wales

Ever since our sheep caught foot-rot from a neighbouring young farmer, who had borrowed one of our rams to get his flock started, we’ve tried our best to run a so-called ‘closed flock’. The farmer in question didn’t have much money and had decided to start his new enterprise by buying a pen of cull ewes at market. Now cull ewes are just what they seem: ewes that are either too old, or have some other problem, usually to do with their udders, which make them unreliable as mothers to young lambs. Had I known that he’d done that, I wouldn’t have lent him one of our rams. Anyhow, one or more of the ewes that were in the same field as our tup carried a virulent strain of foot-rot. It was a damp autumn that year, and the infection soon spread to our ram. Sadly, we didn’t detect it until a few weeks later, by which time it had been transmitted to all our rams and then into the ewes. It spread like wildfire when we brought the in-lamb ewes into the barn for the worst weeks of winter. And I’ll never forget the horrible smell of rotting live flesh – it pervaded everything.

That outbreak was disastrous: ewes couldn’t stand to feed their lambs; then, a few weeks later, they couldn’t graze properly and were constantly short of milk. That summer we had to cull about half the flock. By then we’d started to inject with an expensive foot-rot vaccine, which took about three years to get completely on top of the problem. I reckon that foot-plague cost us about £5,000, not to mention the terrible suffering it inflicted on the poor sheep. Normally, we love lambing, but not for two years, when, frankly, it was sheer Hell.

So to avoid repeating this disaster we never buy-in replacement ewes, preferring to breed-on ourselves, which is why we have three blood-lines – and three rams. This ‘closed flock’ system works remarkably well until, that is, you get the first signs of in-breeding . Last spring, for example, we had a lamb born with a cleft-palate and another with a mal-formed jaw. I’m fairly certain these are problems to do with in-breeding – and anyhow, it was high time we bought-in new blood-lines. So that’s how we found ourselves driving due west towards the little town of Meifod, in Powys. A few weeks earlier the farmer there, Mr. Bennett, had phoned us ‘on spec’: were we interested in buying rams? It was as if he’d been reading our thoughts.

Anyhow, after a four-hour drive through the increasingly congested roads of the English northern Midlands, we reached Upper Hall Farm and were treated to a delicious lunch of Lasagne prepared by his daughter. Later we waddled out into the field as the rams were brought into the handling pen, by a wonderful, and completely silent, Border Collie, who had been superbly trained by our host. I don’t think I have ever seen a pen of better-looking rams. They were superb. If Lleyns have a fault as a breed, it’s a tendency to have rather short bodies; so breeders are always on the look-out for ‘length’. And I have never seen such body length, as on those rams; there wasn’t a short one among them.

Bennetts' tups

So if you’re a sheep farmer and you’re looking for a cracking good Lleyn ram for the autumn tupping season, may I strongly recommend Mr Bennett of Hall Farm (Twitter: @BENNETT____)? You’ll never regret it, I promise. Never. We bought two and will collect them shortly.  And they’re as good as the picture here shows. We tend to name our rams, as this makes it simpler to think about blood-lines. Previous rams have included the fathers, sons, grand-sons and great-grandsons of Monty, of Tex, of Carlton, of Brian, of Corby and of Glen . Anyone care to Tweet some suggestions for our two new boyos (@pryorfrancis)?

2 tups

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Time Team: Sailing into the Sunset?

Next Sunday Channel 4 will be screening the last new Time Team film of any sort. It’s about prehistoric boats and I very much enjoyed being a part of it. So do try to see it, if only for old times’ sake. But when Philip Clarke, the man in charge of making the film, emailed me with the news, it set me thinking.

We’ve been treated to some ghastly horrors in the news of late: scenes of early medieval barbarity in Iraq and Syria; and Russia returning rapidly to the days of Ivan the Terrible. We are being treated to nasty re-runs of history – and why? Because for many people history is about rote-learned texts and semi-mythical tales handed down through the generations. The world view that this engenders is essentially medieval, irrational and certainly pre-Enlightenment. Religious fundamentalists in America describe themselves as ‘People of the Book’, which is indeed what jihadists and others are. But what the modern world needs desperately are ‘People of Many Books’; people who seek rationality and ways in which the whole of humanity can survive on an increasingly over-crowded planet. And this can only be achieved through rationality, and with it, a dispassionate, flexible approach to the lessons of history.

I wouldn’t say for one moment that Time Team had such lofty goals, but in our very small way we took hesitant steps in that direction. I hope others will build on the many boats we floated.

Boats that made Britain

Posted in Archaeology, Broadcasting, Time Team | Tagged , , ,

A Grand Tour: South Tyrol, Leicestershire and my vegetable garden – Oh yes, and Twink

For many people summer is about lying on a beach, getting sunburnt, but although I’ve tried to do it, I’ve never really succeeded. For a start, I turn the colour of an over-cooked lobster in about twenty minutes, but before that I get bored. Bored stiff. No, to be honest, I’d rather be out-and-about doing things and the more diverse the better. The last month has been splendid in that regard. Every day starts with 3 hours writing Alan Cadbury‘s second adventure – known in our household as AC2. And I have to say it’s going quite well and about to get a bit dark and brooding. It’s funny: but although I plan what I’m going to write beforehand, the final product is often very different. It’s as if the book and the people within it are beyond the control of a mere author. I’m just a pipe, a conduit, through which the action flows. And on the whole I think that’s quite healthy – dammit, pipes can’t acquire huge egos. Even the largest conduit of all – the Channel Tunnel – is surprisingly humble, when placed alongside the glories of, say, Lincoln or Ely Cathedrals. Hmm, is this making sense? Perhaps not. And besides, I think I’m digressing (either that, or I’m turning a bit peculiar).

Alpine reservoir, South Tyrol

So back to my Grand Tour, which turns out to be rather Tristram Shandy-esque. It starts with a five-day trip to film strange things in the Italian Alps. I ate and drank far too much – I’ve always said that the Italians are the most civilised people on earth and after that short visit, I’m confirmed in that opinion. Then back in England I headed to Burrough Hill, a huge Iron Age hillfort near Melton Mowbray, where I did some more filming – for a different film. I’m ashamed to say that although it’s not far from where I live, I’ve never been there before. It was FABULOUS. And the sheep were pretty good, too. It was almost as spectacular as Maiden Castle itself, although a lot smaller and univallate (with one encircling set of ramparts). I loved the way that medieval ridge-and-furrow came right up to the main entranceway. Very Leicestershire/Rutland, that. Alan Cadbury would have approved wholeheartedly.

Burrough Hill hillfort, Leics

Then I’ve spent the last few days in my vegetable garden pruning the selfsame plum tomatoes (San Marzano is the variety) I’d been eating a week previously in Verona. But those lucky Italians with all that sunshine don’t have to remove leaves and small shoots to guarantee a good, well-ripened crop. Still, the extra work is well worthwhile as one sucks down home-made ketchup in January. Ah, the delights of vegetable gardening!

Tomatoes close-up

And finally Twink, our sheepdog. Dear old Twink is now an elderly lady. She’s arthritic and almost stone deaf, but she can still get sheep to move just by giving them ‘the eye’. I thought about getting a replacement, but having down-sized to only 40-odd ewes (so 80 lambs max.), the dog wouldn’t get enough exercise – and that wouldn’t be fair on him/her. So now we have to make-do without her, although she likes to join us when we’re driving the small flock and often manages to turn them away from the gate we want them to pass through. Still, I’d rather a few false moves than watch an unhappy Twink standing resentfully outside the field. I fear she won’t last very much longer, as Border Collies aren’t a long-lived breed, but while she’s still with us, I want her to be happy.

Twink on her back

And on that sombre note I’ll go and peel a few plum tomatoes, then cook them up with a little white wine, garlic and chilli peppers. I call it a Mexican Ratatouille. Maisie calls it ‘Your Poison’. But it’s hot and tasty. Yum!

Posted in Broadcasting, Farming, Gardening, My life | Tagged , , ,

Lifers: First the Doorstep, then the Mind?

You’ve got to arrive somewhere if you’re ever to enter people’s lives and the doorstep is as good a place as any. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself as my Twitter account is increasingly packed with images people have sent me and their friends, of The Lifers’ Club on their doorsteps, desktops (spot the MDF), and in one notably scary instance, their dentist’s chair! Then these pictures get re-Tweeted and Favourited, and before I know it the cover of Lifers is everywhere. HOORAY! That’s why I wrote (and re-wrote) it: to be read and (hopefully) enjoyed. So if you’ve just received your copy and you inhabit the Twittersphere, then please Tweet it; if I may coin a phrase: many Tweets make a Cheer! I must say that publishing through Unbound is proving an extraordinary experience. Over the years I have published lots of books, but the only feedback I’ve received from readers has been at Book Fairs – gigs like Hay-on-Wye or Ilkley – or when I bump into people by accident, in the train or supermarket – although having said that, I’ve never actually seen anyone reading one of my books in public, like in a bus, or on the London Underground. It’s always something that comes up in conversation. You could say that up until now, my contact with readers has been rather distant – almost at one remove. But not with Unbound. I’ve had Tweets that have been sent me when the book is first received, then at various times during its reading and then something at the end, when it’s finished. So far (thank Heavens!) the comments have all been kind – enthusiastic, even. It seems to have been a hard one to put down – which is what I intended. I think readers might find AC2 a bit different. I hope it’ll be a good read, but it’s turning out to be more reflective. Alan has been bruised by his experiences in the Lifers’ Club and he’s a bit older and wiser. It’s again set in the Fens, this time on a dig-cum-television-shoot and has benefited a lot from all the films I made for Time Team and my own docs for Channel  4. I have to say I’m very much enjoying writing it – and in my experience that will make for a happier read, too. The main thing is that I’ve really appreciated what readers have had to say. Without their encouragement I might well have given up the attempt to change tracks from non-fiction to fiction. So a million thanks to all my subscribers and buyers. Do come to Ilkley (I’ll be speaking there on Sunday October 5th) and of course I’ll be at Hay-on-Wye in 2015. I’d be surprised if my publicists at Unbound and Penguin don’t manage to find any other gigs before then. Anyhow, I’ll keep you posted in this blog. But again (and I can’t say it enough): MANY, MANY thanks for all your good wishes and encouragement. I really do appreciate it! So to finish I’d like to include a selection of the pictures of Lifers that people were good enough to Tweet. Spot the floors, the MDF desktops and of course the dentist’s chair. And I don’t want to sound pretentious, but these aren’t photos of a book cover: they’re snapshots of time and emotional connection – and I for one, find them very powerful and evocative. I suppose you could say they illustrate the reasons why I persist in writing… Btz2fKFCYAAQjkG BtzBQaACEAE_zpc BtzpISsCEAARsJF BuJ5g7QCMAA8KZp BunmNnCIQAAWHZJ BuXVk1QCYAA0eyo Bt0BQWUIAAAXBKP Bt3QiSKIEAAezbm Bt4G5lJIUAA0o_c Btp6pB-IQAEqa0N BtxtknFCEAAfKHC Btycsq-IQAAvv9F BtyD31LIgAAvltr Btz1jHWCQAE9hvd

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