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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Flaming June

I know we English endlessly drone on about the weather, but sometimes it’s justified – and this year it most certainly is. I’ve just checked the farm diary and so far we’ve only had one millimetre of rain in June, which is on course to be one of the hottest – if not the hottest – on record. April and May were cold and very wet and our heavy clay-silt soils have gone from sticky porridge to cement in a couple of weeks. ‘In that case add plenty of manure and compost’ the experts proclaim from radios and TV screens. Yes, that’s fine if you’ve a small garden, but heavy clay-rich soils will still crack. The soil in our vegetable garden receives regular heavy additions of well-rotted sheep manure every four years, as part of our rotation plan, so the cracks there are narrower and shallower than elsewhere – but they still occur. Cracks near to recently planted shrubs and annuals can dry them out with extraordinary rapidity. So far this season we’ve lost several – and one or two of them were quite choice (i.e. expensive at the garden centre).

We positioned the vegetable garden on the ploughed-out remains of an ancient tidal creek, known in the Fens as a rodden, where the soil is a bit lighter and more silty than the land around it. So most of the flower garden, including the meadow, orchard and wood is on heavier ground, which has retained its springtime moisture longest. Having said that, the cracks which are now opening up are starting to resemble canyons. Primulae loved the wet spring and were just as good in the meadow (cowslips) as in the garden. Strangely, the primroses in the wood were rather disapointing this year.

Primulae thrive in a wet corner, protected by a hornbeam hedge.

Primulae thrive in a wet corner, protected by a hornbeam hedge.

The Long Border has looked stunning, but the initial flush of colour is just starting to pass. The roses were in flower at least three weeks earlier than usual and some of the old-fashioned varieties are already starting to fade. With luck, there’ll be an early second flowering in time for our NGS Open Garden weekend on September 15-16. Weeds have been a big problem. It was far too wet to do much weeding in late winter and early spring, when normally we try to get on top of them, so over the past two weeks Maisie and I have been on our hands and knees, weeding like maniacs. Grass weeds seem to have loved all the wetness and on one day I managed to weed-out three barrowfuls. Needless to state, my hands are a mass of broken-off rose thorns, which remind me of their presence painfully from time to time.

A view along the Long Border in early June. The roses are much earlier than normal.

A view along the Long Border in early June. The roses are much earlier than normal.

A corner of the rose garden, with rose Cornelia in the foreground.
A corner of the rose garden, with rose Cornelia in the foreground.

Moving outside the garden and into the surrounding fen, I’m glad to say that some local farmers are reluctant to drench their crops with pesticides and weed-killers, with the result that sometimes we are treated to the sight of a field of poppies in growing corn. Such fields were common when I was a child, but sadly one sees them less and less these days.

Poppies in a field of corn. Also note the rather wild-looking hawthorn and elder mixed hedge, which is a welcome change from the over-trimming that is now so common. Birds love an overgrown hedge.

Poppies in a field of corn. Also note the rather wild-looking hawthorn and elder mixed hedge, which is a welcome change from the over-trimming that is now so common. Birds love an overgrown hedge.

Our farm is about six miles from The Wash, as the crow flies, so we have been spared some of the high temperatures that are setting records inland. The breezes from off the North Sea have been very welcome, especially in the evenings, but even so our poor sheep must certainly be getting uncomfortabe, with their thick woolly coats. So we sheared a few weeks earlier than usual. Harry Collishaw, who lives on a farm down the road and is at college on a farming course, did the hard work – for the second year running. Light rain was forecast so we did the first two days in the barn, because just a few seconds of rain can wet a fleece so much that it becomes unsellable or unstorable. Wet shorn fleeces are incredibly difficult to dry out properly. Harry had problems with some of the sheep because the wool wasn’t quite ready for clipping: the lanoline, which has a yellow colour and was known in the past as ‘yolk’ (as in egg yolks), hadn’t yet risen above the surface of the skin – as it does when a fleece is ready to be shorn. The following weekend the sun was shining and the forecast was set fair. So we sheared the final dozen or so ewes outside – and Harry had no problems. The warmth and sunlight had done their jobs.

Harry shearing

Shearing in the shade of the barn.

Shearing in the shade of the barn.

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Two Weeks Ago It Was Winter: Now It’s Summer!

This has been a year when the climate, the weather and the season, all seemed to have mirrored the state of my health. So for most of the time it was it was pretty grim, then I had the good news about my prostate and suddenly the sun came out. I won’t say it’s exactly warm and relaxed either outdoors, or inside my rapidly-turning-bionic-body, but I think the worst is over. Most importantly, I’m starting to tackle – I almost said I was beginning to get on top of – some of the VAST backlog of tasks that have accumulated in the garden, over the past six months. I have to say this makes me feel better than any actual physical improvement. And who knows, with a bit of luck and a reasonably dry season, we might just have got the garden into a fit state to open to our NGS visitors on the 15th and 16th of September. That’s in just four months’ time! Don’t panic!!

So now I thought I’d do a quick tour of the garden using pictures I took yesterday, May 14th, on a warmish late spring morning, following heavy rain (15mm) a couple of days previously. The first picture is a general view taken from an upstairs window. I’d mown the lawn three days previously, because heavy rain was forecast – and I think it paid off. We use a powerful (16 hp) mulch-mower, which leaves chopped grass on the surface when the lawn is growing fast and heavy rain washes it down. And that’s what’s happened here. That’s why the lawn looks so good.

1 garden gv

Here’s a view along the small border that runs parallel to the main border, on the left. It’s starting to green-up quite well, I think. The main border still requires some cutting back after the winter, so I didn’t think it merited a picture.

2 small border.jpg

This is an unusual view into the rose garden, taken before the roses have come into flower. I think you get a better impression of this garden’s structure. And I love the greenness of everything. Plants look so lush in May. Incidentally, we’ve never been very keen on rose gardens that consist of roses, alone. I think other plants – shrubs and perennials – show them off to greater effect than just more roses. I suppose technically ours is a mixed rose garden.

3 rose garden

If I could pocket £5 for every time I got a ladder out and climbed up to the poop deck pergola on the back of the house last summer, I’d be a rich man. That wisteria grew so fast and there were so many sharp winds that I had to tie it in every four or five days. But now hasn’t all that effort paid-off? I’m absolutely delighted at the effect – and so soon. Incidentally, at least one of the grey squirrels that raids the bird feeders hanging on the poop has learnt how to bite through string loops. I think I’ll use tarred string this summer. See how they like the taste and smell of that!

4 wisteria

I fear this will be one of the last pictures of Ceanothus Puget’s Blue. The shrub is hardy in southern Britain, but doesn’t like it wet or cold (it’s a native of California, where it’s known as ‘Californian lilac’). Last winter a large branch split off, but rot has started to spread down towards the roots, so I think it’s days are numbered. We normally replace them every 7-10 years, but I won’t be without one: that blue is simply the purest, most gorgeous blue in the garden. Full stop.

5 Puget's blue

And finally, the first rose of summer, Rosa banksae lutea. I’ve managed to strike a couple of cuttings, one of which has at last got established out in the main garden, because this rose, which we planted against the wall outside the back door to the house, is simply far, far, too large for the available space. Every time I walk out to the barn I get stabbed in the eye by looping branches – and this can be a bit much during lambing, when I probably pass the rose bush ten or more times a day. So I plan to cut it down this summer, when it’s finished flowering. I meant to do it last autumn, but then my hip went bad and the rest, as they say is medical history. Which is where we came in. Chop, chop!

6 Rosa banksii lutea

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A Very Damp Lambing

Breaking News! I have just received a letter from Mr. Tev ’Aho, who carried out the HoLEP procedure on my prostate. As I mentioned in my recent blog post, the material that was removed was subjected to a detailed inspection for any signs of cancer. Mr. ’Aho’s letter said: ‘I am delighted to report that the results of the prostate tissue analysis are now back and the tissue was completely benign. No cancer was found.’ Hooray!!! Thank you so much Mr. ’Aho and the team at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. LONG LIVE THE NHS!!!

I do apologise if this blog seems only to be about my medical history and the weather, but those are the things that have been dominating my life lately, so you’ll just have to put up with it. At this point I can imagine my agent saying: ‘Come now Francis, you can’t talk to your readers like that. You depend on them to buy your books and massage your ego.’ And of course, he’s right. So let’s start again:

I do apologise if this blog seems only to be about my medical history and the weather, but there are times when the forces of nature assume a dominating… No, that isn’t working, either. Let’s try one more time. Cut to the chase. Take three:

The ‘Beast from the East’ (see my last blog post) was followed, a month later, by what our friends in the press labelled (and rather less memorably): ‘The mini-Beast from the East’. It wasn’t mini at all and it wasn’t as cold as the first one, but it more than made up for any lack of ice, by a vast quantity of rain – which was precisely what we didn’t need in early April, when lambing had already produced half a barn-full of lambs, whose lactating mums were all desperate to get out and onto some nice new, succulent grazing. And it’s still raining, with bitter north-east winds, as I write, half-way through the second week of April.

I took the following four pictures on April 2nd. The first three are views of the garden, the fourth shows the paddock near the barn where one day we plan to turn-out the ewes and lambs. Obviously I would be mad to do that while the central flood is still there. It would also be very stupid to have any animals graze it while it was still very muddy. So I guess we’re looking at another week – or longer, if the current forecasts prove accurate.

1 flood serpentine

2 flood meadow

3 flood glade

4 flood paddock

Four days after I took the pictures of the floods I photographed the ewes and lambs in the barn and then the following day we let them out into the yard, which is quite well drained and can take a lot of rain. I’m glad to say that the earth you can see in the second picture has now been covered with straw.

5 sheep in barn

6 sheep in yard

And finally, the ‘wild’ (supposedly native, but I’m not 100% convinced) daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus), which we planted in the hay meadow back in the late 1990s, have really come into their own, despite the wind and rain, which they have recovered from remarkably well. And who knows, maybe this does support the suggestion that they are indeed truly native? I’m so glad we made the decision not to plant any ‘improved’ varieties in the meadow and just restricted ourselves to the wild daffodils, whose colour, shape and appearance in a drift cannot be improved on. I took these two photos on the 5th of April and just four days later they were starting to look rather tired, as yet another wet gale bore down on them. And now I must climb into the 4-wheel drive, attach the trailer and collect another load of straw bales. Then it’s back to my book on the Fens, which I’ve got to finish in exactly a month. I’m going to be busy!

7 daffs in meadow

8 daffs close-up

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The Blog That Went Missing: The Beast from the East

As regular readers of this blog will know, it has been a fairly turbulent time for me health-wise, but thanks to our wonderful NHS I’m now very much on the mend and am looking forward to the warmth of spring – if ever that arrives. I planned to write and publish this post sometime in the first week of March, but then various things out there in the real world of rain, mud, sheep and finally urology intervened – and nothing happened. But I did take some photos, which I quite like and which I still want to share with you. So if you don’t mind the slight delay, here’s a truncated version of what I was planning (I think!) to say.

The ‘official’ months of British meteorological winter (December, January and February) had been cool and wet, but 2017/18 had certainly not been a ‘hard’ winter. Snowdrops had appeared a little bit late, but we had had very few sharp air frosts (when the air temperature drops below zero C) and everything looked set for a bright spring. Then something odd happened in the upper atmosphere and in the first week of March we were treated to a week of bitterly cold weather, borne in by penetrating easterly winds, from off a cold North Sea. The Press dubbed it ‘The Beast from the East’ and I was very surprised they didn’t blame it on Putin or Remoaners (as those of us who think Brexit is insane are insultingly dubbed). We didn’t have a deep accumulation of snow – maybe 3-4 inches – but the nights were bitterly cold, as were the penetrating east and north-easterly winds. New spring growth on roses and other shrubs was ruthlessly burnt off and will certainly affect next year’s flowering. I also lost several broccoli plants that were actually blown out of the ground – and then were frosted. What made it so frustrating was that the succulent shoots were just starting to grow, but were still too small to pick.

I took two photos of the ‘Beast from the East’ snow on March 3rd. The first view is of the front garden, the second is of the main garden at the back of the house, taken from an upstairs window. Normally by early March the hawthorn hedges are starting into leaf, as well as a few trees. But not this year. Oh no: spring won’t be coming for at least another month.

1 Front garden snow lo res

2 Back Garden snow lo res

And now for something completely different. My latest book, Paths to the Past was officially published by Allen Lane (the hardback originator of many Penguin paperbacks) on March 1st and I had to do various promotion events in London. Very often these events require me to speak about the book for half-an-hour, or so, before we start the serious business of buying and signing and providing me with the pension that makes the £700,000 paid every year to Fred the Shred Goodwin by the Bank (RBS) he nearly destroyed, look like the immense fortune it is. But I digress – or rather, I start to. Anyhow, I was going through my digital slide collection when I realised I didn’t have any pictures of my two favourite London buildings: the neighbouring stations of King’s Cross and St. Pancras. And as they are the subject of Paths’ final chapter I decided I’d have to put this right ASAP. I took several pictures on the overcast, gloomy days that have been such a feature of the winter and I rejected them all when I saw them on a larger screen, at home. They were dead, lifeless. Then on the day I did a signing in the Parcel Yard pub at King’s Cross (February 22nd, 2018), the sun came out and I got the views I wanted. And I hope you’ll agree, they really are pretty special.

The first two show the main approach to King’s Cross, now that Lewis Cubitt’s superb southern front has been largely cleared of extraneous buildings. The station opened in 1852 and the simple, two-arched façade, with the modest central clock tower, looks as good as it did back then. I think it’s the most elegant, dignified station building anywhere in the world. The Great Northern Hotel, which opened just two years after the station, and was also designed by Lewis Cubitt, can be seen to the left (west) of my second, more wide-angled, picture. The station and the hotel go splendidly together and it’s great that they can now be appreciated as a pair of buildings. I also love the new concourse, which opened in 2012 and was designed by John McAlaslan and Partners. It’s suitably innovative, with a superb and huge-span (52 metres!), cellular roof. A Guardian review at the time said it was a shame that it ‘sits so uncomfortably among neighbouring buildings.’ I couldn’t disagree more strongly. No, it respects and sets off its neighbours and comes as a delightful surprise to anyone who didn’t know of its existence. For me, the new concourse represents the ultimate in modern architecture: it has the self-confidence to deliberately seek-out a less prominent position, yet it still impresses and delights. Sorry, Guardian, I don’t often disagree with you, but you got it COMPLETELY wrong!

3 Kings Cross south front lo res

4 Kings Cross gv lo res.jpg

Finally I took my camera round to St. Pancras, because I knew the superb single-span roof (like the new concourse at King’s Cross, the largest of its time) would look good in low winter sunshine. And I was right.

5 St Pancras lo res

When you stand alongside the statue of John Betjeman and look up at the vast curve of St. Pancras’s roof, it is almost impossible to imagine that in the 1960s many leading politicians wanted to tear it down. They were still flushed with the sense of pride they derived from the destruction of the Euston Arch in 1962 – surely Britain’s greatest tribute to the Railway Age it had just created. But thanks to Betjeman, their myopic ambitions were thwarted. Today, they’d doubtless suggest having a referendum on the subject. Grrrrrr….

The actual station at St. Pancras, technically the train shed, was designed by William Henry Barlow and it opened in 1868. It was a challenging project, as the design had to cope with two levels of tracks and a working canal just a short distance along the line. The completely over-the-top brick-and-stone Gothic-style front contrasts wonderfully with nearby King’s Cross, and while I’ve never been a fan of later Victorian Gothic (as opposed to the delicate Strawberry Hill style ‘Gothick’ of a century earlier) I have to concede that George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Hotel (now the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel), which was added to the front of the train shed and opened in 1873 – some five years after the station itself – has loads and loads of confidence. Maybe if I didn’t have memories of similar, grim, Victorian red brick Gothic buildings at school I’d be less intolerant. Maybe. But do take a walk around the area. It’s a fine example of how the old and the new can thrive when they come together – with respect and, yes, love.

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“DISASTROUS NEWS!!! I tried to suppress it, but the BBC are determined to screen my fleeting interview with Philomena Cunk on BBC-2, Tuesday evening, April 3rd. The programme starts at 10.00. PLEASE don’t watch it – or my reputation will lie in shreds…”
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Free Beer! Meet-Sign-and-Greet, This Thursday at King’s Cross

I’ll be doing a meet-sign-and-greet event for my new book Paths to the Past at The Parcel Yard pub at Kings Cross Station this Thursday, March 22nd in one of their event rooms from 5.30 – 8.00 pm. Copies will be available to purchase on the night. And the pub’s owners and brewers, Fullers of Chiswick (brewers of my favourite London Pride bitter), have very kindly agreed to donate a cask of real ale!!!! Admission is FREE!!!. So you get BEER (while supplies last) as well!!! What’s not to like??? (But seriously, it might be a relaxed and pleasant get-together.)

Posted in books

MEN: you must come clean about your naughty bits!

And just to be quite clear, by ‘naughty bits’ I refer of course to those parts of your anatomy that dangle in your trousers, or get squashed-up and rather uncomfortable when you’re sitting for too long in some modern train seats. I suppose I could have said ‘reproductive organs’, but you wouldn’t still be reading this if I had – and that would have defeated my main aim, which is to reach as many people as possible. Because what I have to say is very important. In fact, it’s about life and death. So if you know of, or suspect any of your male friends who might be experiencing problems to do with their ‘waterworks’ (one of my favourite English euphemisms, with its reference back to the pioneering sanitary engineering works Sir Joseph Bazalgette, and others, in the mid-19th century!), then please tell them about this blog post. And of course women can, and must, play their part too, by being alert, vigilant and sympathetic. And as I will explain, it sometimes helps if they can be a bit nosey and ask a few prying questions.

What I’m talking about is, of course, the prostate gland – although most of the men I’ve discussed it with in various hospital wards all call it the prostrate – which is a fair description if you’ve had to endure one of those post-pee night-time moments when everything between your legs seems to catch fire. Mercifully they’ve been quite few and far between (maybe once a week?), but by gosh they do make you wince and leave you, yes, prostrate. So, and just to get a few simple facts straight, the prostate is the gland that produces the liquid part of semen (‘cum’ in porno films), the wonderful nutritious medium in which those little tadpole-like sperm swim about on their way to unite with an egg and thereby form a new human being. It’s located quite deep in the body cavity, just beneath the bladder. Clearly it’s an important part of the reproductive cycle, but from mid-life onwards, Mother Nature seems to have regarded it as somehow less important and has left it open to various problems and diseases – just as she has done with those other essentials to the birth of a new human being, but at the other end of the process: women’s breasts. As anyone who has ever followed the News will know, prostate and breast cancer are the big killers of many elderly and middle-aged people.

Everyone over the age of about forty must have known somebody who has been killed by one of those two cancers. Sadly, in my forties and fifties the deaths were mostly of women, but in the following two decades the numbers of men who have joined them suddenly increased. Quite rightly there has been a lot of attention paid to breast cancer and its screening and this has had a big effect on the mortality figures. But with prostate cancer progress has been far less rapid and is only now just starting to gather pace. Currently it is taken very seriously and there are some top brains working on it – as I have recently discovered. But I will never forget stories I have been told about friends – and sometimes intelligent, highly-educated professional people – who have died of prostate cancer, often in their sixties. Their widows have talked about their shock when their husbands revealed that they had been passing blood in their urine. But by then the cancer had progressed too far to take any remedial action. At a drinks party quite recently I heard somebody complaining that their husband had to cut down on his drinking in the train on the way back from the office, because it was making him get up and pee during the night. I didn’t know the man in question, but it sounded like the hypothetical drinking wasn’t the problem, but his prostate was. I hope she took my strong advice to persuade him to see his doctor, ASAP.

My own prostate problems began in my mid-sixties, when I noticed I was getting up at night with greater frequency, to have a pee. For several years it was just once or twice and I thought nothing of it. But after I’d turned 65 it increased, and about then my NHS doctor did a routine health check and asked me about my night-time pees. So I told him, and he had my blood checked for increased levels of PSA (prostate specific antigen), a protein which can reveal prostate cancer. My PSA levels increased slowly over the years that followed and I had to endure six prostate biopsies, which aren’t a lot of fun, as they have to insert a tube into your body through your anus, which leaves you feeling very sore afterwards – and gagging for a drink, which you can’t have because you’re on a massive antibiotic dose. This is because prostate biopsies are very prone to infection (your anus isn’t the cleanest part of your body!), as I discovered after my last one, which laid me out over Christmas and New Year – and several weeks thereafter. It also led me to decide-on the title of my eventual autobiography: Six Prostate Biopsies and Still Cycling to Work.

High PSA levels don’t inevitably mean you’ve caught the Big C, but they are an indication that all isn’t well. In my case, my raised PSA levels were most probably caused by a massively enlarged prostate: mine is roughly eight times as large as normal. In some instances, a big prostate goes with being heavily over-weight, but I’m quite fit, so the condition I have is known as BPH (benign prostatic hyperplasia). In my case, doctors think it’s benign, as six biopsies and a full MRI scan couldn’t detect any symptoms of cancer. But we will only be certain in just under three weeks when the results of the biopsies following my recent HoLEP operation come through. And that brings me to my short stay in Addenbrooke’s NHS Hospital, Cambridge; I gather it’s one of the few places in England that can cope with prostates as big as mine.

The HoLEP procedure involves the insertion of a tube (a catheter) into your penis. This becomes the route into the body for a laser device, which removes the material from within the prostate and sends it back down the tube, where it is stored, ready to go to the laboratory to be examined (optically) for signs of cancer. As you can imagine, all of these are very high-tech processes and the actual lasering-out requires a very experienced specialist surgeon, working with a highly professional team. And thankfully I had both in Mr. Tev Aho’s team at Addenbrooke’s (his Twitter feed is fascinating: @drtevaho). After the operation, which Mr Aho was very pleased with, I developed a few problems and had to spend an extra night in hospital, but yesterday afternoon I returned home and last night I only peed twice (and I gather this will improve over the next six weeks). Now I’m home I’m feeling hugely improved, even if my pee still resembles rosé wine, and I emit loud farts rather too often to join respectable company (my digestion reacted badly to the antibiotics). Strangely, I think Pen, our Labrador cross bitch, likes it when I fart, but Baldwin, our young Jack Russel dog, is rather less enthusiastic. I gather the gastric winds will drop in two or three days and the rosé symptoms will clear up over the next few weeks. Phew!

But the main point of this blog post is so simple. Signs of prostate problems MUST be taken seriously: PLEASE don’t cover them up, or pretend they’re not there. Prostate abnormalities don’t inevitably turn out to be cancerous, and besides, some forms of prostate cancer aren’t particularly aggressive and many men die with, rather than of, it. And to wives, sons and daughters I say: PLEASE keep an eye (or an ear) on your father or husband’s night-time movements. If he’s going to the loo too often, then you absolutely mustn’t stay silent: say something to someone – anyone. In my experience, when it comes to prostate cancer, embarrassment and silence are the biggest killers of all.

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