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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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2018: A Climactic Autumn

Following the success of this year’s NGS Open Garden, I was preparing myself for something of an anti-climax autumn. But first I had to head north for a Time Team/Dig Ventures event which took place on Lindisfarne, Holy Island, the following weekend. For non-UK followers of this blog, Holy Island is a tidal island in the North Sea, just off the English coast, close to the Scottish Border. It’s famous in archaeology and history as the place where Viking raiders made their first attack in AD 793. It also gave its name to the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the greatest illustrated manuscripts of early medieval Europe. I think this photo of the Castle captures the atmosphere of the place, quite well. I suspect the rest of Britain will feel a bit like this, after Brexit.

Lindisfarne Castle, completed c. 1570. Heavily (over?) restored by Lutyens, as a country house, 1903-6.

Lindisfarne Castle, completed c. 1570. Heavily (over?) restored by Lutyens, as a country house, 1903-6.

The Lindisfarne event was great and it was fantastic to get together with Time Team pals: Tony Robinson, Stewart Ainsworth, John Gater, Helen Geake and Carenza Lewis. All were on top form and didn’t seem any older. Odd that. Meanwhile, back home in the real world, I have been very busy doing the final editorial work on a book on the Fens I’ve just written for Head of Zeus (the people who published my Stonehenge book). The Fens book will be published next June. Earlier in the New Year (on January 1st, in fact) Penguin will be releasing my Paths To The Past in paperback – and there are one or two very minor corrections I need to get sorted out in the next few days. And then of course there’s the follow-up book to The Fens, which I’ll be working on in late autumn, winter and next spring. But that must remain confidential for the time being. No rest for the wicked!

Out in the garden, we thought the dry conditions of August and September would soon improve, but in fact we were wrong: heavy rain didn’t arrive until last weekend (October 13-14) when I recorded an astonishing 40mm in the rain gauge! That’s almost a record for this dry part of England. Maybe it was the extended dry spell, but autumn colours have begun quite early, as these views of the garden (all taken a week ago, on October 10th) show. The first shows the meadow, with the two clumps of pampas grass in their full glory. Sadly, the tall tassels hadn’t come fully out for the Open Weekend.

A view of the meadow in early October, with autumn colours just starting to appear.

A view of the meadow in early October, with autumn colours just starting to appear.

My second garden view is taken along the Serpentine Walk (sorry if this sounds pretentious, but we called it that as a joke – and it’s stuck!). The colour changes here aren’t very obvious and are mainly confined to some low-growing hostas and sedges. But the big change from the summer is in the leaf-density of the alder and birch trees, which were quite hard hit by some fierce gales in September. The thinner leaf-cover gives a wonderful pale, dappled feel to the sunlight, which you can really notice when you walk along the path. I often think that dappled shade is one of the great secrets of a good English garden. Too often people think in terms of ‘sun’ or ‘shade’ or (worse?) ‘part shade’. The reality of nature is far more subtle.

A view along the Serpentine Walk, with the Glade in the middle distance.

A view along the Serpentine Walk, with the Glade in the middle distance.

The southern side of the Long Border is bounded by the tall hornbeam hedge, which protects the vegetable garden behind it from the worst of winter’s sharp north-easterly gales. This side of the border has proved quite challenging to plant, being both wet and shady. The planting and planning of the borders is Maisie’s responsibility (I just lift and divide large perennials when instructed to do so) and I know she has found this particular stretch very challenging. Indeed, I have heard the words ‘impossible’ and ‘bloody’ muttered under her breath from time to time, between loud and lengthy sighs. Yellow is the theme-colour here, to lift some of the dark shades thrown by the hedge. This year those yellows have proved to be more than usually vivid – yet harmonious. I think this picture captures that quite well.

A shady part of the Long Border, where yellow flowers predominate. Note the Black-Eyed Susan (from Sarah Raven) on the small obelisk (left, foreground), 2 varieties of Rudbekia in the mid-foreground and the tall Helianthus Lemon Queen, in the background.

A shady part of the Long Border, where yellow flowers predominate. Note the Black-Eyed Susan (from Sarah Raven) on the small obelisk (left, foreground), 2 varieties of Rudbekia in the mid-foreground and the tall Helianthus Lemon Queen, in the background.

After a rather hesitant start, following the cold, wet spring, the fuchsias really got going later in the summer. They were particularly good in the autumn. Maisie bought a fuchsia off a roaside stand in north Norfolk. The old boy who manned it swore blind it came from the royal garden at Sandringham. Believe that, if you will. We reckon it’s either ricartoni or gracilis – probably the latter. In March it was severely cut back by the late frosts and we were inclined to write it off for the Open Weekend. But we shouldn’t have worried. It came back – and with a vengeance. I don’t think it has ever looked so good.

The front garden, with Fuchsia gracilis climbing up the wirework dome and the rose Sharifa Asma in the background.

The front garden, with Fuchsia gracilis climbing up the wirework dome and the rose Sharifa Asma in the background.

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What a Great Weekend That Was!

I have to confess that late in July, at the height of the summer’s blistering heat-wave, we seriously wondered whether there would be any flowers in the garden to show our visitors in mid-September, at all. The grass was brown, about half the plants we’d planted in the spring were dead, despite repeated watering. But there was an up-side, too – or so we thought: weeds weren’t growing, either. By early August the garden was almost weed-free, or as good as we are ever likely to get it (we don’t do obsessively tidy gardening).

Then it rained. And rained again. Weed seedlings germinated, then grew a few leaves, then threw all caution to the winds and started to grow like so many athletes stuffing their faces with performance-enhancing drugs.Weeding was a nightmare: more rain, more weeds, further rain etc. etc. But eventually we came out on top, thanks to some very willing local helpers and a lot of hard work by Maisie and me. In the end, the garden looked better than I can ever recall at this time of year. Incidentally, the lawn remained much greener than many others in the area and I’m sure this was because I use a mower with a mulch deck. This doesn’t blow the cut grass out to the side, or into a bag or hopper, but chops it up finely and lets it drop back to the ground, where it gets re-incorporated into the turf. The thicker, slightly more spongy, turf that is the result of mulch-mowing is far more drought-resistant than ordinary lawn grass. I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years and I highly recommend it.

The weekend of September 15-16 was dry and generally sunny and people came in large numbers. In total they contributed £1,510.71 to the charities supported by the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), and that’s a record! The plant sales were particularly successful, and that’s largely down to a massively increased selection and a good stock. We sold huge numbers of the red-flowered strawberries that provide a wallpaper-like ground-cover around the tea shed. Maisie’s brother, Nigel, who is an independent book-seller, provided a wonderful selection of second-hand gardening books, which sold very briskly. Nigel gave all the proceeds to the NGS. Many thanks, Nigel!

The tea team (from left to right in the photo: Mark, Nigel, Rachael and Jessie) were the same as last year when they had to cope with 7mm of rain, which fell on Sunday afternoon – our busiest time. This year the weather was kinder, but the crowds were larger. I don’t think I’ve ever had to discard so many used tea-bags as I did on Sunday evening. Cake was consumed in disarming quantities.

The admission desk and plant stalls had different teams on Saturday and Sunday. My photo shows the Sunday team on the plant stall. When I got round to taking the pictures the admission team was having a cup of tea, so I got Kate (who used to be a Time Team director) to stand in. I think she looks very convincing. Laurence was another Time Team director; he also mixed and directed some of the ‘live’ shoots, such as the royal palaces show – where I was the archaeological director at Holyrood House (or should that be Hoose?), in Edinburgh. Happy days!

The atmosphere behind the scenes when our garden is open is a cross between a live Time Team shoot and an archaeological excavation: organised, friendly chaos – and lots of smiles.

The Tea Team

The Tea Team

The Plant Stall

The Plant Stall

The Entrance Desk

The Entrance Desk

1 I decided not to mention the athletes’ country of origin, as I often visit Salisbury and plan to return safely afterwards.

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The First Day (Saturday Sept 15 th)

WOW! What a wonderful day it’s been. Lots of visitors, but not a crowd, so everyone had time to stroll around, see the garden, walk in the woods, drink cups of tea and devour a bottomless supply of cake. The morning was wonderfully sunny and not too hot. A perfect English late summer afternoon. The roses were in their second flowering and looked gorgeous. Red hot pokers were looking particularly fine and the lawns had greened-up after the parched horrors of July and August. Even the hares, buzzards and woodpeckers seemed bright and cheerful.

We did very brisk business in the tea-and-cakes department and for the first time ever we’ve introduced an old gardening books stall – which is almost half sold-out. The plant stall was better stocked than in previous years, so we sold almost as many plants on Saturday as we did on both days of the weekend last year. Sadly, it rained on Sunday last year, so visitors numbers were adversely affected, but tomorrow looks like it’s going to be fine, so we’re expecting a good turn-out. Fingers crossed!

I don’t think the garden has ever looked this good, with quite so many late summer and early autumn flowers in bloom. Though I say so myself, it looks stunning. Certainly our visitors today loved it and were amazed by its size – long walks and quiet strolls. Several people enjoyed tea-and-cake on two separate sittings. And now for our special contest for Sunday:

Somewhere in the garden there’s a solitary small frog who likes to sit on a stone. Now how’s this for a really generous offer: the first person to spot it and bring back photographic evidence can claim a free cup of tea or coffee!!!!

frog

Here are some pictures of the day:

Book stall

Book stall

The Long Border

The Long Border

The Pond Garden

The Pond Garden

Front garden looking through The Dome.

Front garden looking through The Dome.

Cake portion control

Cake portion control

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Opening the Garden in a Ferocious Season

This is just a quick heads-up to remind everyone that we’re opening our garden for the National Gardens Scheme, as usual, on the weekend of September 15th-16th, both days from 11.00 AM till 5.00 PM. Abundant tea and home-made cakes. ‘But will there be any plants to see?’, I hear gardeners across Britain ask, as they survey their parched soils and cracked lawns? And the answer, much to my surprise, is a delighted YES!!! In fact some plants, asters and roses in particular, are looking better than ever. It’s true that many plants have suffered, and those we planted for the first time in the spring have mostly perished – burnt up by the relentless heat of June, July and early August. But as I said, those that have survived are now prospering and the wisteria which now completely covers the pergola, or poop deck, where we serve our home-made teas (I can’t plug them enough!!) is even having a good second flowering. It’s sheer hell when you have to remove wisteria petals from your fragrant cup of tea or from the soft butter icing that tops a slice of delectable carrot cake. Ah, the torment of being English in summertime (and yes, pedants, I’m aware that technically speaking it’s now early autumn…).

The recent wet weather has led to a spate of weeds, so Maisie and I have been spending hours on our knees weeding the various beds and borders. I find a small hand-held hoe a very useful tool, provided I keep the edge good and sharp. A week ago I lifted the last of the maincrop potatoes (Cara) and I was delighted to see that slug-damage wasn’t too bad. I don’t like using slug pellets, as they kill the hedgehogs that feed on the slugs, but some sheep-wool organic baits seem to work very well indeed. And of course, as it has been so very hot our tomatoes have thrived, with a record crop of the Italian pear-shaped cooking variety San Marzano and the large Marmande, which you can eat, cook with or cut into salads. Some of our Marmandes this year are the size of small dogs.

The newly pruned tomatoes, with San Marzano (left) and Marmande (right). I’ll burn the leaves etc. when they’ve dried in the sun. Doing that helps cut down on the spread of fungal blight.

The newly pruned tomatoes, with San Marzano (left) and Marmande (right). I’ll burn the leaves etc. when they’ve dried in the sun. Doing that helps cut down on the spread of fungal blight.

Right now I’m spending every waking hour pruning the espalier apples that line the path through the vegetable garden. It’s hard work, not made any easier by the clouds of wasps that are feeding on the rotten fruit lying on the ground. So far, touch wood, I haven’t been stung.

I’ll do another blog post shortly, but do try to come. I promise you’ll have a great visit – providing, that is, you have a cup of tea (£1) and a slice of cake (£1.50). Cheap at twice the price – and all for charity!!

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Keeping Calm and Carrying On…

I’ve got every reason to be happy and cheerful, even if the worsening world political situation causes me to despair – to such an extent that I can barely bring myself to listen to the news. So let’s concentrate on the here and now. My new hip allows me to move about freely and my prostate operation has brought me huge relief and more sleep at night. The garden is looking good, despite the drought, and people seem to be enjoying Paths to the Past. My next book is about to start its final editorial process and is due to be published next June (which experience has shown works much better than a pre-Christmas, autumn date).

It has been a busy summer of literary festivals and book-signings, which have been well-attended and I’ve really enjoyed the feedback I’ve had from my readers. To be honest, I really enjoy meeting readers of my books. There’s something so personal about one’s relationship with a reader. It’s as if they’ve spent time around my house and family – especially those readers who have read several books. Their comments can be very perceptive and personal. Often they can be affectionate – and occasionally, very occasionally, I’m privileged to be given a glimpse of events that have affected their lives too. That’s why I enjoy such events so much.

During the second week of July, I did three signing sessions in Salisbury, Buxton and Dartington Hall, near Totnes in Devon. Of course I’d read about Dartington Hall and how it was restored and became an important centre for the Arts, but I’d never actually visited. So I had a wonderful time when I gave a talk there on July 9th. The train journey down to Devon was a nightmare, with cancellations, delays and failed air-conditioning. I hope the audience didn’t spot the huge patch of sweat up the back of my shirt. But the talk went down very well and stimulated plenty of discussion. Afterwards I spent time relaxing in the wonderful Arts and Crafts gardens which still managed to look good, despite parched grass. Towards the end of that week I showed a group of tourists from Canada around Stonehenge. Again, there were horrendous, over-crowded and delayed train journeys there and back, but the charming, friendly group from Canada more than made up for them. It was great to be able to talk about Toronto and Ontario again. Why are Canadians so pleasant and quietly humorous? I suspect it may owe something to their Scottish and French connections. I certainly don’t regret the nearly ten years I spent at The Royal Ontario Museum – happy days!

Dartington Hall and Gardens, Totnes, Devon.

Dartington Hall, Totnes, Devon. The Great Hall was built just before 1400. Over the years it declined but was restored by the Elmhirsts in 1925. Ten years later they established the Dartington Hall Trust which organised charitable artistic and educational events there, aimed at supporting the then economically depressed rural communities in the area. The annual Literary Festival is organised by Ways With Words.

After Salisbury I took another ghastly train ride (which ended with a cancellation and a hurried bus journey that only just got me to the venue – the Opera House, no less – in time for the sound check) to Buxton, in Derbyshire where I did a talk and book-signing with two friends from Time Team days, (Sir) Tony Robinson and Dr. John Gator – the leading geophysicist. Maisie knew I’d be exhausted after such a busy, hot week – which indeed I was – so she had booked us into a miniature French chateau, just outside the village of Gate Burton, overlooking the River Trent, in north Lincolnshire. This highly eccentric folly was built in 1747-8 as a weekend retreat by a successful lawyer based in nearby Gainsborough. From a distance it looks like a French Chateau and it’s not until you walk up to it that you realise it’s smaller than half-size. You have to walk down a short flight of steps in order to pass through the front door, without bending double. The large room is on the first floor and the bedroom off it can just accommodate a double bed, providing that one of the sleepers (not me!) doesn’t mind climbing across. I used the excuse of my recent prostate operation to claim the easier-access side…

The view from the front is of Gate Burton park which has some very fine old oaks and a flock of ewes and their lambs which were doing their best to eat the parched grass. Happily, they were being fed every morning by large teleporter. The back (north side) of the house faces an old wood, with a splendid walk down to a high cliff overlooking the Trent, but the best view of the river is from the west side of the Chateau, where the broad sweep of water curves towards a large power station in the middle distance. I’m not a purist about views: that one was excellent – if anything it was completed by the power station, which looked particularly magnificent after dark.

The miniature Chateau. Maisie is standing at the bottom of the steps down to the front door.

The miniature Chateau. Maisie is standing at the bottom of the steps down to the front door.

The River Trent, as seen from the Chateau.

The River Trent, as seen from the Chateau.

I won’t describe all the places we visited from our base at the Chateau, but two were very special. As readers of this blog will surely have gathered by now, Maisie and I are both very keen gardeners and we had long been interested in the high Victorian gardens at Brodsworth Hall, just west of Doncaster in what is now described as South Yorkshire. Incidentally, I don’t want to sound like an old bore, but the long-established and widely accepted Yorkshire Ridings were far better suited to Britain’s largest county than the characterless modern districts, that were introduced (or rather imposed) during the disastrous local governments reorganisation of the early 1970s. One day I might devote a blog post to these ‘reforms’ which were classic examples of political and bureaucratic changes that completely ignored history and local identities. But I digress. Back to Brodsworth Hall and its fabulous gardens.

The house and gardens were built and laid out in the 1860s by the Thellusson family who had owned the estate since 1791, but had not been able to do anything as their funds were caught up in a prolonged legal battle over a will. Such drawn out battles made many Victorian lawyers extremely rich and of course inspired Dickens to write Bleak House (1852-3). The house was somewhat updated in the decade before the Great War, thanks to an influx of money from coal mining, but it was never kept fully modernised and gradually slipped into slow decline, eventually passing to English Heritage in 1990. The new owners have done a very sympathetic restoration of the house which still manages to retain an air both of past opulence and more recent faded gentility. Gardens, however, can’t be given such treatment: plants are living things and when well looked after always seem vibrant. So the horticultural team have gone for a full restoration of what the gardens would have looked like in their prime, as first laid out in the early 1860s.

I’ve visited Brodsworth several times, first during the 1990s when I was on an advisory committee to English Heritage, and then later, as a tourist, in 2010 and 2013, but none of these compared with the guided tour we were given by the Head Gardener, Daniel Hale, and his able assistant Georgina (or George), in mid-July. These tours are advertised on Brodsworth’s website. I’ve given a few hundred (thousand?) site tours in my life – so I do know what I’m talking about – but this was one of the very best: informed, informal and highly entertaining. It also took place on a perfect sunny summer’s day.

The Head Gardener, Daniel Hale, in the formal bedded-out Victorian garden at Brodsworth Hall.

The Head Gardener, Daniel Hale, in the formal bedded-out Victorian garden at Brodsworth Hall.

I think there’s a historical tendency to see Victorian gardens in terms of very brightly coloured summer bedding, often crammed into quite restricted urban, or more usually suburban, spaces. This style of gardening came into fashion with the simultaneous introduction of greenhouses and the arrival of new heat-loving plants from the expanding British Empire. We tend to think of the two great London museums, The British Museum and The Victoria and Albert Museum as being the guardians of that imperial heritage, but we should not forget Kew Gardens, whose flower beds, buildings and plant collections are just as important – if not more so. In the later 19th and early 20th century the likes of William Robinson (1838-1935) and Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) promoted more naturalistic styles of planting that were more appropriate to the British climate. They were both excellent writers and their long lives proclaimed the health benefits of gardening. But my point is that Victorian gardens were not just about bedding. In a great garden, such as Brodsworth, the bright summer bedding provides a focus and contrast to the more subtle shrubberies, rockeries and woodland walks that surround it. Its impact has to be experienced to be appreciated. Photos and videos simply cannot capture the moment when you stroll out of a laburnum tunnel and suddenly you are in another, brighter, more exciting world. Even though I now know what to expect, the first sight of that central planting at Brodsworth is transporting. I can’t think of another word to describe it. Too often modern gardens at country houses run by great national institutions are very neat, well-tended, but essentially rather dull and uninspired. But not at Brodsworth. Oh, no.

The other very memorable place we visited from The Chateau was also run by English Heritage, but it was very different. This was to be my first visit, after 73 years on this planet. Having been there, I can’t understand why it isn’t better known. Yorkshire is, of course, famous for its Cistercian abbeys. The order was founded in France in 1098 and were known as White Monks. They came to Britain in 1128. Most people have heard of Fountains, Rievaulx and Kirkstall Abbeys, but few have come across their more southerly neighbour at Roche, just east of Rotherham and Sheffield. You enter the Abbey through a wonderful little cottage ornée that formed part of Capability Brown’s landscaping of the Abbey’s romantic ruins on behalf of its then owner, the Fourth Earl of Scarborough. He began work in 1775 and while it is known that he lowered walls and built mounds of soil and submerged large areas of the ruins in a romantic lake, he did create something of lasting value that has led to the survival of the monument. I strongly suspect that excavation in some of the lower, waterlogged areas around the Maltby Beck, which flows through part of of the site, will one day reveal wonderful information about monastic life in the 13th and 14th centuries. The site is surrounded by trees and even though it was a gloriously sunny summer’s day, there were not many visitors. So we were able to relax, eat a small picnic (nothing elaborate, just a few quails in aspic, the odd lobster claw and a bottle or two of Bolly) and enjoy our surroundings. I shall certainly go there again.

The ruins of Roche Abbey, with the transept of the Abbey Church in the background. The stream in the foreground is the Maltby Beck, which passed beneath the monks’ latrines (not in this picture for reasons of delicacy).

The ruins of Roche Abbey, with the transept of the Abbey Church in the background. The stream in the foreground is the Maltby Beck, which passed beneath the monks’ latrines (not in this picture for reasons of delicacy).

On our return home we did our best to get stuck into the garden, but sadly the weather was so stifling hot that we could only manage to work half a day at a time. Then in early August, the strong ridge of high pressure that had been anchored over Scandinavia in June and July at last weakened and Atlantic weather returned, bringing with it much-needed rain, even if sometimes it was too heavy to be altogether beneficial (we had 27mm on Monday August 13th!). One of my small summer projects has been tying-in the wisteria, which now covers the wooden pergola, or Poop, at the back of the house. This is where visitors can sit and relax with a cup of tea when we open the garden to the National Gardens Scheme, which this year will be on the weekend of September 15th-16th. Last year we had 7mm or rain on the Sunday and next year I hope the wisteria should be thick enough to absorb a light shower. This year it just looks like a delicate William Morris wallpaper. Who says you can’t be creative with plants?

A view of the wisteria I am training over the Poop – the pergola at the back of the house. The shoots are growing so fast that I have to get a ladder and tie them in every five, or so, days.

A view of the wisteria I am training over the Poop – the pergola at the back of the house. The shoots are growing so fast that I have to get a ladder and tie them in every five, or so, days.

A quick final note. BBC Radio 3 broadcasts discussions during the interval of Promenade Concerts. I did one of these programmes at Imperial College, just across the road from the Albert Hall on Friday 27th July. It was about the British landscape to accompany the music (by Holst, Vaughan Williams etc), which was excellent. Here’s a link to the podcast (of the talk, not the music).

Posted in books, Gardening, Landscape, My life | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

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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