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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A New Localism: Hope for 2022?

It’s early morning. I’m sitting at my desk, about to start writing. Then, thirty seconds ago it was announced that in December inflation rose to 5.4%, the highest it has been since 1992. Blimey. Brief pause while I gather my thoughts. Turn off the TV sound. Ah, that’s better. Look out the window: very slightly lighter, but only very slightly. Then crows start cawing from the wood – a harsh sound, but a welcome sign of the approaching morning. Glance across to the television. Now they’re discussing what has come to be known as Partygate – all those Downing Street boozy parties that Boris held during the depths of lockdown a year ago. Apparently about 50 Tory MPs are discussing writing letters saying the Prime Minister should resign. And so it goes on. Brexit, Boris. Boris, Brexit. Meanwhile, dominating the way we actually lead our lives: it’s Covid, Covid, Covid. Plus, of course, a struggling NHS and collapsing, poorly staffed, care homes, all due to under-funding; a decade of Austerity, metres of new Brexit red tape and further labour restrictions. Politicians in Westminster, Washington and Brussels are becoming much harder to understand. They seem to be living in different worlds to us. Of course, I appreciate that we do need them, if only to co-ordinate the fight against climate change and the forces of evil, such as powerful, autocratic dictators; but even so, it’s increasingly hard to feel any warmth towards them.

I find I keep asking myself if I can take much more of this in 2022? And if it’s bad for me, living in a comfortable farm house without a mortgage and a large garden with a self-sufficient vegetable patch, what must it be like for people in rented inner-city flats, without so much as a window-box? No, something has to change and if central government can’t do it, then we must take matters into our own hands. So I sincerely believe that 2022 will see the development of a tendency that is already starting to grow: a new, reimagined form of localism. However I don’t want to confuse the sort of localism I can see starting to emerge around me, as anything to do with ‘local government’ as we used to know it. That was mainly about semi-corrupt councillors and very wealthy developers. Huge (and I mean VAST) housing estates are currently being built around Holbeach. I gather that these houses aren’t advertised much locally and I’m told they are being pitched at residents currently in Essex and around London, where people are looking for more rural locations (and presumably have the money to pay well for them). I can remember when Peterborough New Town was being built, the planning authorities insisted that new housing estates had to include pubs and community centres. But not today. I really dread to think what problems these vast new estates will bequeath us in a few decades. It’s scary. As it is, Holbeach only has very limited school, medical or veterinary facilities. No, the sort of localism I can detect is genuinely home-grown and wonderfully uncoordinated. I first identified it on a Friday. I can’t remember precisely when, but I do know it was a Friday. Let me explain.

Long Sutton market was set up in the early 13th century, at a time when the town’s early medieval prosperity was growing. Today you can see that prosperity immortalised in its church (St. Mary’s) with its magnificent lead-clad timber steeple – one of the earliest and finest in Europe. It’s hard to get your head around such an early date, but the tower was built in the decades after 1200.

The tower and steeple of St. Mary’s Church, Long Sutton. 13th Century.

The market is held every Friday in the Market Place next to the church. At first glance it’s a fairly typical Georgian and Victorian setting, but sadly some of the buildings are very run-down (this can be seen in their upper storeys). The main coaching inn has been empty for many years. Unlike its equivalents in the south-east the town has not been prospering in the late 20th and 21st century and seemed to have been hit quite hard by the recession of 2007-8.  The same can be said for Holbeach, where shops and market traders in the town centre were hit particularly hard by the arrival of a Tesco supermarket. Its equivalent in Long Sutton is run by the Lincolnshire Co-op; it’s smaller, less ruthlessly run and if anything, it actually attracts people to the town centre. I’m happy to shop there; whereas you’ll never see me in the Holbeach Tesco!

The Co-op in Long Sutton, with the Church of St Mary’s in the background. I know it’s no architectural masterpiece, but the shop is in scale with its setting and helps keep the town centre socially and economically alive.

For years local government officials seemed to be trying to kill-off town markets in the area. In Long Sutton traffic was allowed through the Market Place and the number of stalls diminished and the stalls themselves grew smaller. Then Covid hit. The market was closed and briefly moved to a small car park on the edge of the town centre. We both decided to stay locked-down at home and on my last visit to the market I had a word with Dan, who runs the excellent Rout’s of Wisbech fish stall at Long Sutton. I don’t know where I’d be if I couldn’t buy fresh mussels in winter, fresh oysters in season and wonderful green marsh samphire in summer. Dan also has a wide selection of fresh white fish (cod, haddock, plaice, skate wings, conger eel, Dover sole etc. etc.) and shellfish, including crab (dressed and undressed), cockles and my personal favourite: small brown shrimps. It turned out that Dan was planning to deliver fresh fish to the homes of regular customers during lockdown and he lived-up to his word. Thank you Dan, you made sure that neither Maisie nor I went mad or suffered from malnutrition!

The Bread and Cake stall at Long Sutton Market, with the side of Rout’s of Wisbech Fish-stall in the background.

Every Friday I follow the same routine when I visit Long Sutton Market. First I buy a freshly-baked loaf and rolls at the Bread and Cake Stall. Then I visit Routs Fish Stall, where Dan tells me what’s particularly good that morning. Occasionally he’ll tell me that something wonderful has sold-out. So I try not to get there much after 10.00 AM, but don’t always succeed.

Dan and his wonderful selection of fish.
The fresh fruit and vegetable stall, with stalks of Brussels Sprouts very prominent.

Next to Dan is the largest stall in the market, which sells fruit and vegetables, most of it freshly picked from local growers. There’s always a queue waiting to be served, but there are half a dozen people looking after us, so the delay in never for long. The stall is carefully laid out, with gorgeous-looking bunches of carrots, complete with bushy leaves, and complete stalks of Brussels Sprouts, not to mention potatoes, celeriac and broccoli in open boxes beside the queue. That way, you can carefully inspect what you plan to buy. The far end of the stall is given over to fruit, including bananas, oranges, clementines, apples (local) and grapes. They also stock Seville oranges. Two weeks ago I bought 3 lbs of them and Maisie made 10 jars of her ambrosial marmalade. Stuff Covid!

The flower stall.

If you head round to the other side of the Market Place there is another row of stalls, including the ubiquitous homemade cup-cakes and fudge bars, plus useful things like replica railway signs from the steam age, a man selling watch batteries and another selling crisps and all manner of crunchy, salty nibbles – all very cheap. There’s also someone selling double-glazing, although I’ve never seen him with an actual customer. Still, he’s always very friendly and greets me with a cheery smile every time I pass by.  But chief among all these is the large flower stall at the far end, which sells cut flowers (very good value) and bedding plants for the garden. I often buy two or three bunches from him to brighten winter days indoors. Those flowers have been a godsend during lockdown.

But the good news is that the market is getting busier and word is spreading locally, which is excellent. I also notice that while prices are starting to rise quite steeply in local supermarkets, the market prices remain remarkably low. Talking to the stall-holders, it’s clear to me that they feel considerable loyalty to their customers, many of whom are friends and local people. In return, we feel solidarity with them. It’s so nice to encounter trust and faith in others in these times when suspicion and conspiracy theories seem to rule supreme. The new localism is based on some very old and much-cherished values. We mustn’t let it fail.

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Flag Fen is Back!

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a blog post Always Look On the Bright Side… about Flag Fen and how it had just been taken under new management, following the demise of Vivacity, the organisation that ran most of Peterborough City Council’s cultural facilities. I won’t say how I feel about Vivacity and how they ran Flag Fen, but let’s just say it’s now in very safe hands. More to the point, the new management care deeply about the site, the people who work there and, of course, its many thousands of visitors. The new organisation behind Flag Fen will be familiar to all Peterborough residents, present and past, when it was known as Brook Street college; today it’s still based in its old campus off Brook Street and is known as City College Peterborough. Click here to visit the new Flag Fen website, which I should add is still under development. Over the years, I’ve done countless talks and lectures there because the College has always been focussed on outreach to local people – who are precisely the audience we were trying to appeal to in the early days of Flag Fen. Today archaeology is much better known than it was forty years ago, when sometimes visitors would come up to us and say words to the effect that ‘I thought excavations only happened in places like Egypt, I’d no idea we had such things here, in England.’ So I was absolutely delighted when City College asked me to join their Flag Fen team.

 We’ve had to organise a huge number of things in order to get Flag Fen back on the rails, as it were. One important aspect of Flag Fen’s re-launch has of course been purely archaeological: we need to know just how rapidly the timbers are drying out and how well the Mere is keeping the core of the site wet. To do this we called on the expertise of the highly experienced team at Cambridge University Archaeological Unit who carried out the superb, and internationally important, excavations at Must Farm, just over a mile away from Flag Fen, on the Whittlesey side of the River Nene. I need hardly add that we keenly await the results of their excavations at Flag Fen. The dig was funded with a generous grant from Historic England (known as English Heritage a few years ago). I must confess, it was great to see archaeologists once again at work in Flag Fen.

One day I would like to see a plaque erected somewhere out in the Flag Fen park to thank David Savory for his extraordinary devotion to the place and its continuing existence during some very challenging years. Whenever I did manage to summon up the courage to visit Flag Fen when it was being run by Vivacity, I would always nip round to the barn and there I’d meet David. Over the years he has done a huge amount of work improving the park as a haven for wildlife and now it is really starting to show. I’m delighted to say that David is now Manager of the park at Flag Fen. Every time I visit I seem to spot something new. I’d known for some time that David knows a huge amount about wildlife and was invariably willing to help me with problems identifying birds. He’d always have a broad smile and would tell me about the latest animals who’d paid them a visit. What I didn’t realise back then was that he was a brilliant photographer, too. Here are three great examples of his pictures, all taken at Flag Fen:

 Covid-19 has, of course, complicated every aspect of all our lives, but it has also led to the establishment of government-funded local recovery programmes, some of which are aimed at assisting the cultural sector.  With the help of these funds the new governing body appointed a General Manager to run Flag Fen. Jacqueline Mooney took up her new job in September and is already making a big impression.  Jacqui’s recent employment has been within the visitor side of organisations like English Heritage and the National Trust, where she ran important attractions and led teams that sorted out several long-term problems. But hidden near the start of her CV was something I had been looking for: she earned an archaeological honours degree from Sheffield University, which, until its very recent and – to my mind – scandalous closing down, was one of the finest archaeology departments in Britain. Over the years, experience has shown that prehistoric archaeology lies at the heart and soul of Flag Fen and whoever is in charge there must have considerable experience and knowledge of the subject. So welcome to Flag Fen Jacqui!

The new General Manager at Flag Fen, Jacqueline Mooney, at a well-known prehistoric site in Wiltshire.

Flag Fen’s first full season of rebirth started memorably with a summer solstice fair, which featured stalls and displays in the park and attracted good crowds of visitors. It was great to see craftsmen and women using Bronze Age axes, spinning nettle fibres and threading prehistoric looms. David Savory patrolled the exhibits accompanied by a bottle-fed Soay lamb, which behaved for all the world like a well-trained Labradoodle. David’s lamb was very popular with the many children, whose screams of delight helped to lift what was already a very relaxed and cheerful afternoon. While I was walking around the displays I also recognised the faces of many of our old Flag Fen volunteers, who I hadn’t seen for many years. David made big efforts to attract them back to Flag Fen and now, with Jacqui’s added support, our long-missed volunteers are returning. Flag Fen’s survival and future prosperity always depended and will continue to rely heavily, on its force of dedicated volunteers. In the past they helped us survive the hard times, and as new variants of Covid are sadly still showing us, these are not about to end any time soon.

 Back in the early-mid 1990s Maisie set up the first Young Archaeologists’ Club (YAC) at Flag Fen and it was a great success, with the young people helping with the excavations and going on trips to visit sites and places of interest further afield. Over the intervening years the Flag Fen YAC has waxed and waned, but it has recently been given a big rejuvenation, as part of the larger Fenland YAC, under the excellent supervision of Alex Fryer. In September YAC members were able to closely examine the trenches being excavated by the Cambridge Archaeology Unit. This went down very well indeed, as the cheerful faces of the youngsters in the following photo show.

Photo courtesy of Fenland Young Archaeologists’ Club.

When Maisie and I were running Flag Fen full-time, back in 1980s and ‘90s, we always liked to keep the site open twelve months a year, seven days a week. Of course our visitor flow slowed down quite dramatically during winter weekdays, but that was when we’d be able to get on with research and writing-up. One of the best things about our days of winter opening were the smiling faces we’d welcome on weekends. People loved walking through the park, visiting the Museum and of course the café was always well-packed with customers in bobble hats, clutching steaming mugs of soup, coffee and tea. I’m sure many of our regular winter visitors went on to become volunteers and helpers. Sadly, winter opening was soon abandoned when Fenland Archaeological Trust handed over the management to Vivacity, but now I am delighted to report that the site is open again and selling particularly good cups of real coffee, snacks and cakes. We have also applied for an alcohol licence and I hope one day to enjoy a glass or two of ale there (strangely we might be selling Pryor’s Bronze and Iron Age Ales – which are delicious and brewed by a local craft brewery).           

The new team at Flag Fen have made an exciting addition to the winter delights at Flag Fen. The Ancient Lights illumination trail will be will be open from December 10th-16th. It will consist of a spectacularly lit journey through the Flag Fen park, where children might happen to meet Father Christmas – and who knows, his mythical origins  might well lie back in the Bronze Age? Because of Covid-19, visitors are advised to reserve a time in advance. Here’s a foretaste of what’s to come:

 We had all sorts of problems to sort out, not the least being the two wooden bridges across the Mustdyke, which should have been given urgent repairs some time ago. A temporary metal one will shortly be in place. Covid has meant that some of our displays aren’t currently available, but we are hoping to open them soon. Meanwhile we soldier on. Do come and visit, but not just to show your support: when you come, I think you’ll agree that we’re making great progress – and much of that is due to the sterling efforts of David and Jacqui. Keep up the good work: it makes me feel humble to see a huge prehistoric presence slowly returning to life.

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Autumn in a Light Touch Garden

First a quick word of apology: I’m so sorry that I haven’t updated this blog for almost seven weeks, but life has been rather frantic of late. However, I had my booster Covid jab a few days ago and I now feel ready for anything. Meanwhile, autumn has suddenly arrived. This morning (November 3rd) I looked out of our bedroom window to see the lawn and paddocks glistening white in the early sunshine. The actual temperature didn’t fall below 2 degrees Celsius, but that was low enough for what people of my father’s generation used to call ‘a grass frost’. We’re close enough to the North Sea not to have full air frosts (zero Celsius and below) until early January. Recently there have been winters when you could count the number of air frosts on the fingers of one hand. Who says global warming isn’t happening? Time for my first photo, which was taken when the garden was open on September 25th and 26th.

It’s such an English scene: people taking tea in a country garden. The decked wooden pergola at the back of the house, which we call the Poop Deck, is now almost completely covered in blue-flowered wisteria which provides very welcome shade in summer and early autumn. Happily for us, we were allowed to serve tea, unlike last year when Covid restrictions meant we could only offer pre-wrapped cake. It took a few days to work out our expenses and donations, but we finally sent the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) a cheque for £1,922.

Over the past two years of pandemic we’ve all owed so much to nurses and the medical profession and I’m glad to say these are the principal charities supported by the NGS. Here’s one other picture of the NGS Open Weekend:

The meadow nearest the house becomes the car park and we generally move sheep out of it a few days in advance, to prevent drivers and passengers treading in warm, soft sheep poo. It’s not quite so bad when it’s hard and dry. This year the poo was nice and dry and members of a local car club must have heard, because they brought some of their vintage autos to the Open Weekend. Here you can see a Riley RM – a wonderfully elegant series of cars produced in the decade following the last war, from 1945-55. Behind it is a pre-War (I think) MG sports car. I love its wire-spoked wheels and flared mudguards. Thanks to these visitors, who arrived appropriately dressed and smiling broadly, for a few hours the car park looked very classy indeed.

It always takes us a couple of days to clear up after the open weekend and then I found myself doing a series of signing sessions at local bookshops, promoting my new book (which came out in early August), Scenes from Prehistoric Life. It has been more than I year since I did a book-signing and it was really great to meet-up with my loyal readers once again. Very few signings were cancelled, but now they seem to have slowed down, and I can detect more than a slight feeling of trepidation as Christmas approaches. Indeed, Maisie and I have decided that from now on we’re both going to be very careful. There’s bound to be a new variant sometime over the winter. And besides, the general national and political atmosphere is so toxic that we both think we’ll be happier at home, with people we know and trust. Sad times.

I returned to earth after an October of signings and took some photos of the garden in the final week before the start of November. There’d been very little autumn colour when we opened the garden at the end of September, but a month later things were very different, although I must say that some things were rather disappointing. Our screen of huge black poplars, for example, just shed their leaves without changing colour. Hawthorn hedges are remaining resolutely green, but viburnums are turning a good red and their berries are positively gleaming. This view across the two main borders has the Poop Deck on the left (now free of tea-drinkers) with the larger trees of the garden in the background. The cut-leaved Rhamnus frangula ‘Asplenifolia’ at the centre of the picture is looking particularly fine. It loves wet, heavy soil.

Maisie and I have never been great enthusiasts for tying up and restraining plants. It’s part of our ‘light touch’ approach to gardening: if a plant is going to bend or collapse we might try to prop it up somehow, preferably with another plant, or with something permanent, like a post, pot or rock. In some situations, like where peonies are growing along narrow paths, we might use permanent frame-like edge supports, but by and large we try to steer clear of temporary fixes, which rarely blend with the rest of the garden. Autumn, however, is when plants really like to flop over and this wet season has been great for floppies, as this view of asters in the main border illustrates. For what it’s worth, in autumn I often carry a lance-like broom-handle pole when I mow this border. I feel a bit like Sir Galahad as I expertly flip the flower stems above the rotating knives of the mulch-mower.

Autumn is also a season of surprises. The long borders and the carefully contrived views into beautifully managed landscapes in great country gardens can come alive in new ways, as the various colours come and go; but in our own garden I also enjoy those unexpected glimpses of old friends, from new angles. We normally look along or down borders but I was strolling through the garden a few days ago when I happened to look across the main border and caught this rather unusual view of ground-cover leaves, perennial seed-heads and shrubs against the green of the still summer-like hornbeam hedge. That view was taken at the centre of the long border at the point where it is crossed by a mown path. Here’s another view of the same area, but now we are viewing it in the way we intended when we laid out the garden.

I’m not saying this more structured view doesn’t work – because it does. Indeed, it’s very ordered and structured, with the clear separation of the pinky-red Euonymous ‘Red Cascade’ and the golden leaf willow ‘Golden Sunshine’. The curving hedged path in the background looks very inviting, too. Yes, it certainly works well, but… But…I know: it lacks the anarchy of the previous picture. Maybe anarchy’s the wrong word, because the plants are all structured and you can’t have structured anarchy (not even in today’s Parliament!). So I think it does come down to a lightness of touch: the second, more structured, view lacks that informal, relaxed element. I believe strongly that a good garden should combine structure and spontaneity. I suppose that’s what I mean by ‘a light touch’.

I made another effort to capture the structured informality of our autumn garden by an even more distant view, which I took through the branches of a screen of pleached limes that runs part of the way between the barn and the house. I make no apology for the huge lime tree leaves framing the picture, which features the two bog garden-style soakaways behind the barn. The red Euonymus and the golden willow that featured so prominently in the previous picture are still at the centre, but at the left-hand end of the prominent hedge (part of the tall one surrounding the vegetable garden). There are several components of the garden’s underlying framework here: two soakaway beds, the small border, the main border and the veg garden hedge, yet they are all drawn together by the mystical forces of autumn to form a unified and harmonious composition. That’s one of the things I love about gardening: every year it produces new surprises. As if to prove myself wrong, I want to end this blog post with a view that I never tire of: the two pampas grasses in the meadow that frame the path into the wood. This year they were looking gorgeously fluffy. I also must confess that I like this view (taken below two white-trunked birches at the edge of the formal garden) because it’s not a welter of emerging autumn colours. There’s something rather sad about the stubborn persistence of dark, late summer greens in certain trees: it’s as if they dreaded winter. I think this year I rather share their forebodings.

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Our Garden Opens on Sept 25-26th, 2021!

This is just a short piece to announce that we’re opening our garden for the last weekend of September – in a week’s time. Yes, it has been a horrible season for weeds and somehow we’ve managed to get more or less on top of them. But there have been big compensations: the large numbers of grasses are putting out resplendent tassels and the asters are looking better than ever.  Most important of all, plants are looking green and healthy – even this late in the year. And there’s also quite an enticing hint of the strong autumn colours that are to come in October and November.

Last year all our visitors had to book a time-slot in advance, via the National Gardens Scheme website. This year things are different. Yes, you can book an advance slot through the NGS, but you don’t have to. We’ll still let you in. The thing is, the garden is very large (over 10 acres?) and you simply don’t need to rub shoulders with other visitors. Having said that, we’d be very grateful if you could wear masks when queueing for tea, for admission or at the plant stall. First admissions are at 11.00 AM, last at 4.00 PM, but you don’t have to leave until after 5.00 PM, when our volunteers will be starting to pack things up. The cost of admission is £4.50. It’s worth remembering that evenings are starting to draw in.

Last year we weren’t allowed to sell tea or drinks, but our brilliant Tea Team came up with the idea of offering pre-wrapped slices of cake in its place. They proved hugely popular, so we plan to repeat them, but we’ll also be offering our visitors traditional tea and cake, served on antique china with cups and saucers (not mugs, perish the thought!). And the tea is brewed properly in a teapot, so you don’t have to dangle a bag in your cup. The teas will be served from the pergola at the back of the house, which we refer to as the Poop Deck, because of its wooden floor. The large wisteria on the back of the house and the pergola is starting to form a green roof. The plant stall, run by Linda, will feature plants from our garden and those of our helpers. This year it’s very well stocked.  Last year we also offered the sheltered little paddock alongside Chicken Lane, at the back of the vegetable garden, as a place for enjoying picnics. That also proved a big hit, so we plan to repeat it this year. If it’s not too wet we’ll also provide a few straw bales. One other thing to return from 2019 will be the stall of second-hand gardening books, provided by my brother-in-law Nigel Smith, who also edits this blog. Thank you Nigel!

It’ll be great to see you back. And remember, spend money like water: every penny will go to nursing and medical charities. We’re looking forward to it hugely!

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A Torrid Early Summer

Gosh this has been a strange summer and I don’t know if readers have shared our inability to tie down which day of the week we are currently living through. Yesterday was Friday, but all day Maisie and I were convinced it was Saturday – and this despite the fact that I had just gone to Long Sutton market, which only takes place on Fridays … creepy! Today (August 8th) the Olympics end, which will be good as I’m not sure I can cope with many more ecstatic radio interviews with over-excited skate-boarders. Gosh, I do sound like a grumpy old man: sorry! Time to turn to books and gardens.

And first to books. Sadly Heffers had to cancel their late summer signings, but it looks like autumn events will be taking place. My friends at Toppings Bookshop in Ely tell me that tickets for my talk and signing on September 6th are selling well and unless there is yet another health emergency it will certainly be going ahead. Other events to promote Scenes from Prehistoric Life are currently being arranged and I’ll report on any progress. I was also glad to hear that booksellers tell me that The Fens is still selling briskly, which is very cheering, as I really enjoyed writing it. I hope these late sales will help compensate for the fact that Covid-19 struck Britain at precisely the same time we launched the paperback; we had to cancel over twenty bookshop events. I think I’ve said this before, but it can’t be over-stressed: signings are where authors get to meet their readers and they are SO important. I can’t wait to do Ely!

I really do think that we are starting to feel the effects of climate change. Laying aside global floods and wildfires, the day-to-day weather seems to be getting more extreme. I called the early summer torrid – and it has been, but in both its senses: hot and turbulent. Britain has had a summer of successive wet weather fronts from off the Atlantic, interspersed with hot spells when high pressure predominated. So we’d remove barrowfuls of weeds in the warm weather, only then to watch as new ones sprung up when the next spell of wet weather arrived. Some parts of the garden have been thoroughly weeded five times. I can’t recall a summer like it.

I want to start this blog post with a photo of a corner of the orchard I took on August 4th. Basically, amateur orchard keepers fall into two schools: pruners and non-pruners. I tend to favour the latter, with the exception, of course of the espaliers in the vegetable garden. But when I did the first cutting of the long grass beneath and around the trees in the orchard I found it very difficult to drive the mower beneath the long, dangling branches, many of which were laden with fruit. I could deny it no longer: it was time to do a summer prune.

The big advantage of a mid-summer prune is that it doesn’t stimulate as big a regrowth as a winter prune. There are other advantages, too. This year has seen huge numbers of apples and I must confess I’ve usually got better things to do in early summer than to spend time thinning them out. So a late June/July pruning can be used to remove surplus apples. I also use the summer prune to let more light and air into those trees that are getting a bit congested. As the next photo shows, after the pruning I always think the orchard looks far more businesslike.

On the same day I took the ‘after’ view of the orchard I took four other pictures of the garden. The first is a view along the main double border, looking west, towards the large oak seat. It shows how well the various herbaceous plants are starting to blend together. Having been so warm and wet, it has been a particularly good year for day lilies, the red one in the left foreground being Hemerocallis ‘Alan’. The tall, golden dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides, ‘Gold Rush’ has grown particularly well this summer. Like the hemerocallis it has really thrived in the wet. I love the way its golden leaves contrast with the colours of the border plants below it.

I turned round to take the next view of the main border, looking west, towards the pergola, which is largely hidden by shadow. When she drew up her initial planting plan Maisie wanted the two halves of the border to contrast, but in hopefully quite a subtle way. So the previous picture is dominated by reddish/purple hues whereas this is a scene of whites and yellows and gold. The yellow trumpets of the hemerocallis to the left belong to the named variety, ‘Marian Vaughan’.

Another group of plants that thrive in wetter conditions are the various types of New Zealand flax or phormium. The long leaves of phormiums are very fibrous indeed and have been known to stop the blades of rotary lawnmowers when they get wound around them. This year most of our phormiums have also put out a magnificent display of flowers which remain tall and stately for the rest of the summer.

The last of my recent views of the garden was taken round the back of the barn. I rather like the rather sinuous mown grass path which only gets sunlight in the morning. So hostas thrive there. This year their leaves have been attacked by slugs, despite all our efforts to keep them at bay. So I thought I’d take a picture of them in flower, when the leaves are not quite so evident. I can’t recall a better show of hosta flowers – and again, it lasted twice as long as normal.

And now, as they say, for something completely different. Over the years I’ve been trying to improve the way I store potatoes. This is largely because our heavy soil means that slug damage can be a constant problem, especially in wet years such as this. In the past I would often find that slug-damaged potatoes had started to rot and had spread the rot to the potatoes near them in the storage bag. I very quickly learned not to keep potatoes in plastic bags. So I tend to use cardboard boxes, or, more commonly, double-thickness brown paper bags. Happily for us our chicken pellets come in such bags. Good, frost-free but well-ventilated storage helped cut down the spread of rot, but the development that made the greatest difference came a few years later when somebody (a visiting potato farmer, perhaps?) suggested that I should let the spuds dry in the open air for a few days, before putting them in their storage bags. This allows them to form protective skins, but it’s important that they be shielded from direct sunlight, which will soon turn those skins tough and green. The green skins taste nasty and are not very healthy, especially, I gather, for expectant mothers. So this next picture shows the potatoes I’ve selected for keeping arranged by variety on my workshop floor. I’ve only retained the larger ones. All the smaller ones and those with bad slug damage will go into boxes for immediate consumption. When I shut the double doors the sunlight will be excluded, but I’ll also cover the potatoes with a sheet of brown paper, just to be certain. Just for the record, this year the best slug resistance was provided by the second early variety Kestrel (I grow it every year) and the pink-skinned main crop Desiree. I need hardly add that both have excellent flavour. Given the chaos caused to the food supply chain by Brexit and Covid, it’s good to know that we have more than enough potatoes to see us through the winter.

In mid-July our neighbours cut the hay meadow, turned it twice and baled it on July 18th. They told me the hay was excellent and it certainly smelled very sweet. When we kept sheep ourselves, the dozen, or so, large round bales provided by the meadow, together with another dozen or so from the grass along the dykeside brinks around the edge of the wood and garden, would feed our in-lamb ewes for the couple of months in late winter/spring when they were housed in the barn for lambing. Our meadow has never been a garden feature alone. It has always had to earn its keep.

And finally, a view of the Rose Garden taken on the 4th of July, during a brief dry spell when I somehow managed to cut the grass. Everything looks wonderfully lush and luxuriant, including the pink flowers of the sweet-smelling Hybrid Musk rose, ‘Cornelia’. The heavy rains of July washed out many of the older roses, reducing them to shrivelled-up brown paper parcels. Modern roses have been bred to be rain resistant, but I have to say I’m less keen on their bright colours and lack of scent. Everything comes with a price. The three trees along the back of the picture are (left to right) an American river birch, a cut-leafed alder and, biggest of all, a golden Leylandii. While we were planning the garden I had read somewhere that the hedging Leylandii could be grown as a tree. So I bought a small cutting of the slower-growing golden variety and planted it, sometime around 1995. It’s now a substantial tree that casts such a deep shade that it’s difficult to plant beneath it. I often show this tree to younger gardeners who might be planning to grow a Leylandii hedge. Yes, they do provide an instant barrier, but they need cutting at least twice a year and draw huge amounts of nutrients from the soil. I like my single tree, even if the gold colour has faded, but I’d hesitate before I planted another one. And as for a hedge! Please think twice.

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Front of House

If truth be known, I would always far rather be working or just relaxing behind the scenes. I have never been much of a centre stage or front of house person. I confess that some people might find that admission a bit odd, as these days I seem to spend much of my time standing in front of  audiences – and sometimes quite large ones – at literary festivals and bookshop signings, when I tell the world about the glories concealed in my latest book. I must also admit that I do like doing such talks, but for me the real reward comes after the front-of-house lecture, when I retreat to a desk, quite often behind the scenes outside the lecture hall, to sign copies of my books. This is where I get to meet my readers face-to-face – and I really have been missing those occasions. In the spring of 2020 we had to cancel about 25 signings because of the pandemic and I suspect we might not get back to the ‘old normal’ in 2021. I don’t like the idea of meeting my readers with a Perspex screen separating us, but I fear it may come to that. I’ve had two jabs, as, I suspect, have most of my British readers, but even so, the new highly infections Delta variant of the disease might well infect a few of us.  Maybe we should hold future signings in swimming pools, where we all wear flippers, masks and snorkels. Sorry, that’s a silly idea.

I do apologise for that introductory paragraph, which was completely irrelevant to the subject matter of this blog post, but it did allow me to vent my feelings about something I care about deeply: namely, meeting my readers. It’s one of the main reasons why I like writing books – or indeed, this blog – and it stimulates me to try out ideas that some might find a bit controversial. One day I’d like to write a blog post on raised vegetable beds, which to me seem a very expensive excuse to prize vast sums of money out of well-intended younger gardeners all in the name of supposed soil health.  With land becoming increasingly scarce, it seems crazy to box it up into tiny little raised beds, none of which could produce enough potatoes to feed a healthy family for more than a week. But enough of that: I’m about to embark on a second rant and we haven’t yet been treated to a single picture.

Again, apologies for the first two paragraphs. Time to bite the bullet. This blog will largely be about the garden in front of the house. It’ll end with something a bit more reflective. But now to that first picture which I think for once in my life looks good enough to grace a coffee-table volume about a classic country garden. Almost Great Dixter standard – or is that going just a bit too far? Incidentally, when I was a child and was getting carried away with enthusiasm, or just showing off, my mother would calm me down with: “Steady darling, you’re going too far!” She was always smiling, so I don’t think she really meant it, and as I know, she loved it when people went too far. Anyhow, before I digress for a third time, the next picture is a view of the garden in front of our house taken, like all the others in this blog post, in the second week of June. It shows the front garden in all its early summer glory: not so much a bed, as a floral battle field. Originally we intended the front garden to resemble a cottage garden, but as the picture shows, it’s slightly more anarchic. I took the photo through the cheap-and-cheerful hazel arch out of the herb garden. We have to replace the hazel every couple of years, using rods I cut from the wood you can glimpse in the background.

The rose over the arch is the Hybrid Musk ‘Daybreak’ and she smells as good as she looks (I can’t refer to roses as ‘it’!). The small dark green shrub in the foreground is a rarish privet, Ligustrum rotundifolium, which Maisie spotted in a specialist nursery. I was sceptical at first, but as usual her choice proved right. Maisie was the main inspiration behind the front garden’s general arrangement and the selection of plants – and this year she has been the principal weeder as well. I don’t know how she managed to get on top of those weeds, but she did. I’ve never known such a year for weeds: it has been appalling!

This is a close-up of the flowering perennials visible in the first picture. To the left are our own hybrids of the pale blue delphinium ‘Summer Skies’, together with peonies and lupins. Most of the lupins are our own hybrids and I cannot be certain about the peonies’ names without leaving my desk, putting on a waterproof and dropping to my knees in search of labels. So let’s move onto the next picture.

This is a view down the path linking our back door to the barn (in the background). During lambing this was the route we used to collect milk for lambs or injections for sick and ailing ewes. So it was straight and direct – and certainly not picturesque. Shortly after we built the farm, sometime around 1997, we bought the fig tree in the mid-background, a reliably hardy and delicious variety known as Brown Turkey. An old friend advised us to plant it over the body of a dead sheep, which we did when a poor ewe died during lambing. It was sound advice and that magnificent fig tree is wonderful memorial to her. This year the fig leaves were very late to appear – I reckon at least 4-6 weeks behind what you’d expect in a normal season. I do enjoy the Loch Ness Monster box hedge.

For some reason the warmth and damp of early June really suited the Oriental Poppies in the border beneath the back wall. Often the deep shade thrown by the fig leaves means that the poppies (Papaver ‘Goliath’) below aren’t quite as good as those in the sunnier parts of the border. But not this year: they are looking splendid.

My final picture is of the bamboo garden on a warm, sunny day. I’m sitting on a deck chair sipping a cup of tea and listening to the yaffle of green woodpeckers shaping their nests in the nearby and recently pollarded willows. It’s taken our garden a long time to acquire dappled shade and now that we’ve got it, we plan to cherish it. And that brings me to my final point.

Gardens are about more than plants, lawns and borders. Gardeners too spend their time doing a lot more than merely tilling the soil and pruning shrubs. I think Covid has certainly shown that gardens and gardening are vital to both mental and physical health. But there is far, far more to them than even those huge benefits. Gardening is an art and a craft: a good garden is a vehicle for expression and creation. We gardeners must never under-estimate the importance of what we are doing. If I may adapt the famous line by John Keats, for those of us who garden – who have to garden – our gardens are ‘a joy forever.’ It was thoughts along these lines that prompted me to approach my publishers (Head of Zeus) for a follow-up to my last book, The Fens. And to my delight they have agreed. So when I’m not in bookshops signing and promoting my very next book (to be published in early August), Scenes from Prehistoric Life, I’ll be out in the garden taking photos, or tapping away furiously at the keypad of my laptop writing the first draft of Our Fenland Garden. The current deadline for the manuscript is the end of May 2022, with publication a few months later. I’m so excited!!

And finally, this morning I went out into the veg garden and picked a good supply of petit pois, which have been delicious this year. Maisie loves them too, especially with minty new potatoes and she thought both the potatoes and the peas would go very well with two duck breasts we had in the freezer – and which needed eating up. So she Googled ‘Duck with green peas’ and was about to press Return, when she noted her spell-checker had changed it to ‘Duck with green beaks’! Isn’t technology wonderful?

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May 2021: Wet, Wet, Wet!

I’m starting to write this blog post on the last day of May, which happens to be a Monday and a Bank Holiday. More to the point, we’ve got some close friends coming to spend the day with us. They’ll be the first  official visitors we’ve had to our house since we went into the first Covid-19 lockdown, back in March, 2020. True, we’ve had plenty of people in our garden, including of course our friends and supporters who came for the National Gardens Scheme open weekend, last September, but even then, we couldn’t allow people inside the house. But much has changed since last autumn and most importantly of all, Maisie and I have both received our two inoculation jabs. So even if we do manage to catch the disease it’s very unlikely indeed that we will become seriously ill (and as I lift my fingers from the keyboard they will all instantly cross themselves, firmly).

I have the television on in the background (sound turned off), as I always try to catch the early morning weather forecast which is done by a real living meteorologist and is always more reliable than the BBC Weather App on my phone, which seems to change radically from one minute to the next. And I can never understand why the hourly summary predicts rain from, say, 10-11 AM, but list the ‘probability of precipitation’ as just 21%. Very odd. If I’d handled statistics like that as a student I’d have failed my exams. But I digress: the reason I mention the television wasn’t to rant about an App, but to tell my long-suffering readers, that all morning the screen has been showing pictures of vast crowds on beaches at resorts in Bognor, Bournemouth and Skegness, to name just three. People look very happy, but also rather sunburnt and – dare I say it? – slightly overweight. Gosh, we Brits are becoming a nation of fatties.

Maybe I’m just being a predictable old sexist, but I seem to remember that back in the ‘60s and ‘70s most overweight people were female – often ladies ‘of a certain age’ who had raised their children and were now relaxing and enjoying well-earned cake, cream and fish and chips. Meanwhile, of course their husbands were down at the pub doing something similar but with a very slightly less fattening brown ale. But the thing that struck me when I saw the recent footage of people on the beach, was that younger men were overweight too. Does this reflect the fact that much modern work is screen-based or power-assisted? I honestly don’t know, but I think we do need to recognise and address the overweight problem, because if we don’t, the younger generations will have to face complex health crises that will make Covid seem relatively trivial. And as a serious afterthought to a serious thought, surely the problem that lies beneath the phenomenon of increasing overweight isn’t sugary drinks or fatty, over-processed foods. They’re a symptom, not the cause which is Education. Simple as that. Poor or inadequate education is of fundamental importance. It has given rise to so many social evils, not the least of which is populist politics. I could never understand why it was that populist politicians like Hitler rose so rapidly to power in the 1930s. I think now I am beginning to understand. Populists espouse and believe in Quick Fixes, such as Brexit, but which often backfire, as Bolsonaro is discovering in Brazil. But there are no quick fixes to poor education, which is all about consistent standards and steady progress which can only be provided by well and kindly run local schools and colleges. Love, humour and tolerance – the three biggest enemies of populist bigotry – can best be taught to children and young adults by personal contact with their friends and teachers in classrooms and lecture theatres. You’ll be relieved to know that that’s the end of my late spring rant, which was largely triggered by the British Government’s pathetic response to the damage to education caused by Covid. Meanwhile, back to the blog and the garden, where I was talking about our first two visitors on the last day of May.

Our friends have two young children who love visiting the farm and garden and it’s great, because young children don’t recognise weeds: to them a dandelion is a lovely yellow flower and its seed-head is something to blow away with delight. To a gardener, of course, they are a pernicious weed with an impossibly long tap root. Anyhow, our garden is full of dandelions and of other weeds, including vast areas of grass, creeping buttercups and goosegrass, whose cleaving leaves, stems and seeds stick to one’s clothes and spread everywhere. I find they also irritate my skin. But the point I’m trying to make is that the weeds in our garden are ubiquitous. And why? Because it has been the wettest, coldest May on record and weeding has generally been impossible – because our clay-silt soil compacts terribly if stood upon in the wet. The frost damage has been quite considerable, too, including several apple trees, whose blossoms were aborted. So let’s retrace our steps through the month since my last blog post, starting with two pictures taken on May 5th.

The first was taken near the wood and is a view across the meadow with the fastigiate English oak (Quercus robur var. ‘Fastigiata’) towards the centre of the picture, in the background. Every spring the carpet of cowslips gets more prominent and spreads a little further. There must be hundreds of thousands of plants there – and they all started from a handful of seed which I gathered back in 1994 from our old garden in Parson Drove. The ash trees in the wood haven’t even begun to leaf-up and yet the (supposedly) wild apple to the right of the fastigiate oak is coming into blossom. As I currently write, now in early June, ash trees are looking greener, but even now, one or two in open, exposed conditions are only just starting to open their buds. In June! Fully six weeks to two months late! What a weird season.

The second is a view from the rose garden, where the box hedging is starting to look a little sad (a form of blight took hold after recent wet winters, made worse by this May’s incessant downpours), but with the Tea Shed glimpsed in the background. The gorgeous crab apple Malus sylvestris ‘Evereste’ is just coming into bloom in front of it. One of the things I like about our garden is that we don’t have many secluded ‘rooms’. It makes me smile if one can catch glimpses of different areas, unexpectedly. We don’t plan these – they just happen, which makes them so much more fun! I hadn’t noticed this particular view until I took the picture.

This view was taken almost three weeks later, after a horrible spell of wet, cold weather. Honestly, we both thought winter had returned, with ceaseless freezing cold winds from off the North Sea. It was horrible…brrrrr! It’s a view over the front garden with the wood (seen in the first picture) in the background. The trees are a little bit greener, but not much. You can also spot that some of the ash trees are suffering from Ash Dieback disease – a deadly fungal infection known as Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. Woodland ash trees are particularly susceptible and many of ours are dying. By contrast, the garden in the foreground is full of life and the first flowers of summer are starting to emerge. As I write I can see the lupins in the front garden which are looking wonderful, and in full bloom.

The weather stayed dry and three days later on May 31st I took two further pictures. The first is a view along the main double border. The lawn hasn’t been mowed because the ground is still too soft and the border’s edges haven’t been trimmed (for the same reason: edges collapse if you stand too close to them). But I think this picture is full of promise for early summer. True, there are creeping buttercup flowers in the grass, but so what? I hate weed-free lawns almost as much as I detest the English obsession with striped lawns. Grass should be lush and healthy, not over-trimmed and stripy. Personally, I always think of those bloody stripes as the gardening equivalent of handcuffs; they tell me that this grass is captured, taken prisoner and bound-over to a permanent jail where control is maintained by tight mowing, synthetic fertiliser and hormone weedkillers. Freedom for lawns NOW!!

In the evening I took a stroll down towards the pond garden. The untrimmed lawns are still much in evidence, as are the recently pollarded willows, which are just sprouting into regrowth. But what is it about the low sunlight of a Fenland evening? There’s simply nothing like it. Sometimes when I’m doing an early summer barbeque, this light can be so distracting, sometimes leading to burnt chicken wings and singed sausages.

The final two pictures were taken on the following day, June 1st. The first shows a view across the meadow similar to the initial picture of this blog post, but taken with a slightly wider-angled lens. The grass has grown a lot, following all the May rain, but in this later picture the subtle pale yellow of the cowslips has been replaced by the much more vigorous tones of the meadow buttercup. I didn’t plant a single one of these; they all spread naturally into the garden from surrounding dykesides. So none of this is planned, but it also couldn’t be improved upon. To my eye that buttercup display is pure perfection – and it happened entirely by itself. It’s the sort of thing that gives gardening its very special magic.

My final picture is in complete contrast to that lovely buttercup scene. It shows a view of the vegetable garden with onions, peas and potatoes in neat, regimented rows. In the foreground, beneath mesh is a row of early summer cabbages and tender stem broccoli, and to the right, beneath netting (not mesh, as this prevents bees from pollinating the flowers) are this season’s strawberries, which I’m very pleased with. They’ve got lots of flowers and we should be blessed with a large crop in a few weeks. The raspberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants, largely hidden behind the greenhouse, are also looking very promising.

So that’s it. Lockdown looks like it’ll be easing and I’m delighted to report that nurseries and garden centres seem to be prospering. If this nasty pandemic has given us anything positive, let’s hope we find that more people are out in their gardens and allotments. Whatever else they’ll be doing, they won’t be wasting their time. And they won’t be putting on weight, either. Lovely buttery, home-grown potatoes make you positively lithe and slimline – at least that’s what I tell people. Time for a glass of Pimms with our own fresh mint and Alpine strawberries: bliss!

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Hi Pressure in Command!

You can’t beat a good, challenging title – until, that is, you start writing. Then you have to face reality. It’s late-ish April (the 23rd) and I’ve just turned the television off because the screen is a mass of pixilated blobs and the sound is, if anything, worse. This always happens around here in high pressure weather, because the signal out in this part of the coastal Fens is so poor. Outside in the front garden two doves are sitting on the fence in the early morning sunshine, seemingly chatting over the events of the day. Many of the shrubs and plants around them are cloaked with a light covering of hoar frost and the large dark pink flowers of the small magnolia bush look a bit droopy in the cold. This is the third week of high pressure and it’s starting to have quite a serious effect: crops aren’t growing due to a complete lack of rain and heavily grazed pastures simply aren’t recovering. Normally at this time of year you can’t spot the ant hills in the meadow beyond our front garden, but this morning they stand out prominently – as do the green woodpeckers feeding off them.

And then of course there are those other, more metaphorical high pressures: the appalling surge of Covid in India, the continuing disaster that is Bolsonaro’s Brazil and then there is always Putin – and China. And Brexit… But there are also signs of hope: thanks to the NHS, both Maisie and I have had our second Covid jabs and as one doctor wisely said, it looks at last as if Britain is moving from a pandemic to an endemic state. So with luck I’ll be signing books again later this year. Talking of which, I’ve just been sent my corrected page proofs for Scenes from Prehistoric Life in Britain, which is due to go to the printer in a few weeks’ time. Other signs of hope include President Biden who seems to be reversing most of Trump’s incompetent blunders. His latest initiative, a digital conference of world leaders about climate change does really seem to have made progress. Having said that, I do hope that Britain’s loudly proclaimed ambitious carbon-reduction targets won’t be like our Prime Minister’s other ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace programme, or his government’s failed attempt to help house-holders install better insulation. Like most other sane people in Britain, I remain far from convinced that the government can achieve any of their lofty targets, unless, that is, they can pass the project on to competent people outside the increasingly suspect Westminster Bubble – which is why the NHS vaccination project was such a success. But enough of that. Let’s take a walk in the garden and consign politicians to the mental muck-heap where so many of them seem to belong these days. It’s time for some fresh air!

I shall start with the view that greeted me a few days ago, when I opened the long curtains covering the French doors leading out onto the Poop Deck, the sitting-out space at the back of the house. Directly in front is the small border, with the main double border running parallel to it, to the right. As you can see, we’ve largely cut back the herbaceous seed-heads and last season’s stems. In many public gardens these are removed in the autumn, to keep things looking neat and tidy and also to prevent the appearance of seedlings where you don’t want them, but we dig them up and if they’re good enough, we’ll sell them on our plant stall to raise money for the NGS. Also the seed heads provide food for the hundreds of long-tailed tits, sparrows and other finches that populate the garden during the coldest months of winter. In our garden the removal of the seed heads normally happens (with Jason Gardener’s help) in later March before the new season’s growth gets under way.

Four days before I snapped the frosty scene I took my camera out into the Long Border where I took this view of the two small trees of Amelanchier grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’, which we planted about fifteen years ago. At the time we were still planting lengths of the hornbeam hedges that form the border’s backdrop. By far and away the most reliable and high quality hedging supplier was Buckingham Nursery and in their catalogue Maisie spotted the Amelanchiers – and bought a couple, along with a few dozen 3 year-old hornbeam plants. They flower regularly every springtime and require virtually no maintenance – and what’s more they seem to tolerate – even enjoy! – our wet, heavy soils. I’m also delighted to report that Buckingham Nursery are still going strong: I’m always delighted when family-run businesses succeed. There’s something so cold and soulless about huge corporations – as we’ve just seen in England with the collapse of the European Super League – a bare-faced attempt to make the sport of soccer yet another marketable commodity. I’m so glad it failed.

We thought back in late March that spring had arrived: the ceaseless rain stopped and there were quite prolonged glimpses of the sun. I think I even started wearing one of my broad-brimmed Canadian Tilley hats to ward off the possibility of sunburn. The forecast didn’t look too bad so I decided to take the opportunity to plant my first early potatoes, which had been chitting on a windowsill indoors for about two months. The chits (sprouts) should be tight and dark green for the most vigorous growth – and these ones looked good. I normally try to get the first earlies in by the end of March; this should avoid the possibility of frost damage, but in 2020 some of them got quite badly damaged by an unexpected late air frost. As I write (April 25th) the first leaves are just poking through the surface and I’m having to earth them up to protect them from continuing regular frosts. English weather is so unpredictable!

I took three other pictures on the 24th of March and I’m pleased to report that they’re slightly more interesting than that row of seed spuds (and the wonderful 50+ year-old Dutch hoe I use to earth them up). After planting that first row of early potatoes I took the camera out into the meadow as the sun was shining and the daffodils were looking at their best. Back in 1994-5 we planted several drifts of the supposedly native British daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) in the area we had staked out as our semi-ornamental hay meadow. I say ‘semi-ornamental’ because it had a job to do: to provide fodder for the ewes when they came into the barn for their six weeks of lambing in March and early April. In certain cold, wet years the daffs can be very poor with short flower stalks and poor blooms. But not in 2021: I don’t think I have ever seen them looking so good!

Having snapped the daffodils I started to head back to the house, when my attention was caught by a loud ‘yaffle’ – the distinctive call of the green woodpecker. It came from somewhere near Chicken Lane and as the chickens were still confined to our small barn (as per regulations, to avoid avian flu), I thought I might get a chance for a good picture of a woodpecker feeding off an ant hill, for this blog post. But when I arrived at Chicken Lane I was astonished by the pale blossom of the sloes and wild plums in the low sunlight of early spring. We planted the trees and shrubs that line Chicken Lane in the mid-nineties and I don’t think we could have done any better – even if we had employed an expensive, fashionable garden designer. Sometimes you just stumble upon perfection.  

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My Next Book! ‘Scenes From Prehistoric Life’

First, I must apologise for the delay in producing this blog post. Life has been very frantic, what with Covid, writing and editing. The weather hasn’t helped either, in fact I increasingly use the term ‘global weirding’ to describe the meteorological effects, in Britain at least, of climate change. Frankly, it’s been a bloody cold and wet late winter and early spring and life in the garden has featured mud everywhere, and buds stubbornly refusing to crack open – yet the lawns continued to grow. Then, about a week ago in the last few days of March, the Weather God came to his or her senses and suddenly temperatures shot up: three days ago it was about 22 Celsius, now it’s back to a chilly 8. Those three days of above average temperatures (including the hottest March day, in England, for about 50 years) allowed me to get my First and Second Early potatoes planted – but frosts (including air frosts!) are forecast, so I’ve got to remain cautious. So that gives me an opportunity to return to this blog (‘and not before time!’ I hear loyal followers muttering…).

In mid-to-late March I received the proofs of my next book, which you’ll have already gathered from the title of this post, is all about Scenes from Prehistoric Life. There are fifteen Scenes and as I write this short post I am very aware that I’ve proofread eight of them – so I’m (just) over half-way through them and have a deadline for their return to my Editor at Head of Zeus, of April 20th. So with luck I’ll make it, providing, that is, I don’t start a tirade in this blog about Brexit or the horrible lurch towards the hard right in British politics, which is worrying so many people, myself included. So no ranting. No tirades. Get thee behind me Satan (visions of Andy Hamilton in Old Harry’s Game…).

Herewith a few well-chosen words about my new book (and I can’t be arsed to repeat the title for a third time, although I can hear my publicist urging me to do so: ‘repetition never hurt anyone, Francis!’).  She can be very persuasive… So I will, its…

…wait for it…

…Sod it, let’s skip straight to the cover picture (cue roll of drums and the approaching sound of the Band of the Coldstream Guards playing stirring extracts from The Enigma Variations):

I think that’s a really good cover which the designers at Head of Zeus have assembled, based on a print by artist Andy Lovell. They’re all to be congratulated: well done! This is a book which follows on from what I was attempting to do in Paths to the Past, which many readers have told me they enjoyed a lot. As I’ve pulled back from a day-to-day involvement with the nuts and bolts of archaeology, but continue to spend the majority of every day outside and getting my hands dirty with practical work, I’ve started to contemplate why the ordinary, day-to-day aspects of life matter so much – and how they can link us so vividly to the lives of people in the sometimes very remote past.

I don’t want to stress what this book is not about, but seeing as how history on television, and via Netflix and similar outlets, these days is all about royalty, fantasy and great leaders, I think it’s time to put forward a different way of viewing the past: from the bottom, up; not from the top, down. And when I say ‘up’, I’m not just referring to how ordinary men, women and children would have viewed their social and spiritual leaders – although of course that’s one part of the story – but how they might have thought of themselves and the lives they were living. I suppose I’ve always been interested in what it means to be human and how we all have the power to change the world for worse, or better. For me, these things matter profoundly and in Scenes I’ve tried to rethink the past, as I’ve read about and experienced it, in a slightly different way. This is certainly not a book for students or academics, unless, perhaps they find themselves reading it when we’re all allowed, once again, back into pubs – or maybe when they’re sitting in a garden, gin-and-tonic in hand, while listening to the sound of crows returning to their night-time roosts, as the sun slowly retreats below the distant horizon. Does that set the Scene? I hope so. Publication date is August 5th. So there’s not too long to wait – and with luck (if enough copies of the hardback sell) there’ll be a much cheaper paperback a year later.

Finally, of course it’s impossible to predict a virus with any precision, but I’ve already had my first (Astra-Zeneca, Oxford) vaccine and have been booked in for my second one next week. As I write, 32 million Brits have been jabbed. We’re also likely to get a variant boost-jab in September/October. With luck the so-called ‘new normal’ will see Covid managed rather like ‘flu, and if that is indeed the case (fingers crossed!), then I should once again start re-connecting with my readers at signings in bookshops and Literary Festivals up and down the country. I find those signings so rewarding: it’s great to meet my readers and hear what they really think about my books. And I’m delighted to say that some of my latest offerings have been well enjoyed, especially, Home, Paths to the Past and, of course, The Fens. Let’s hope Scenes goes down as well as they did! And heartfelt thanks to all my readers for their, for your, loyalty and patience.

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Winter Tasks and Signs of Hope

Back in the 1970s I lived for nine years in the Canadian city of Toronto. I spent most of summer excavating in England, but I used to return every autumn. When I returned, often in later October the first question I would ask was: ‘When is the weather going to turn?’ Even back then, before meteorological satellites had really made much of an impression, weather forecasters had become very good at predicting when the northerly air mass would swing south and winter would begin. And it was quite a dramatic process, leading to sharp drops in temperature which caused tree and shrub leaves to suddenly colour-up and then drop. I know of nowhere so spectacular as the maple and birch woodlands of Canada and New England in the Fall. They are a classic illustration of the predictability and sharpness of continental weather systems. Things are very different away from the great land-masses in places such as Britain, a medium-sized island, just off the European mainland, on the western edge of the North Atlantic Ocean. In these places, weather is much harder to predict with any certainty more than about five days in advance, even today, when satellite technology allows us to track the Jetstream and follow the weather systems below it.

British weather is very strange and no two seasons are ever quite the same. A year ago, the winter and early spring of 2019-20, was one of the wettest on record and gardening was very difficult. This year has been wet, too, but somehow it has felt even wetter. It has certainly been very much colder with snow lying for many days and frequent frosty nights. Last year there were a few ground frosts (caused by the radiation of heat out of the ground), but air frosts (where the actual air temperature drops below freezing) were very unusual. This year a succession of sharp air frosts will have had a very beneficial effect in the garden, because aphids and fungal diseases were starting to become a real problem, following a series of mild winters. For some reason, too, this winter and spring, water seems to have stayed longer on the surface. I don’t think I have ever seen so many mini-lakes and shallow ponds appear in fields of growing wheat and barley. When eventually they do drain they leave behind a great smear of mud. As an archaeologist I find such shallow surface water fascinating because it can reveal traces of much earlier ditches and hollows.

Our farm is located off a later medieval droveway which helped to mark and divide up the edge-of-parish grazing. Surface drainage of this land was aided by a series of parallel shallow ditches, which bounded strip fields known as dylings. Boundaries of these dylings lie beneath our house, garden and grazing fields. Many of them showed up in the recent wet weather, including this clear example which I photographed from upstairs.

The wet weather of late January revealed outlines of the ditches that bounded  medieval dylings, or strip fields, which still lie hidden beneath our house and farm. This example can be seen behind the small trees and shrubs in the foreground; it then runs across the paddock, towards the hawthorn bush near the large hedge that follows the line of the medieval droveway, at right-angles to the dyling.

Last winter we cut back half the rose hedge that runs alongside the driveway to the house and farmyard. This year the work was done by Jason  using a selection of power tools from his vast and comprehensive collection – I still don’t know how he manages to fit them all in his van, let alone how he keeps them in impeccable condition. He did the job rapidly and very well, but leaving the hawthorn, bramble and elder seedlings which I dug out the following day.

Jason cutting back the rose hedge that runs alongside the drive. Hawthorn seedlings have been left intact for me to remove the following day.

The main job I had for Jason and his assistant was much heavier work than strimming-off a rose hedge. On the other side of the drive on top of a low bank that skirts the garden pond on its western edge, we planted a row of white willows which we intended to pollard. We did this after about fifteen years of growth in, I think, 2010. I vaguely recall doing a second cutting-back in 2013 and I was planning to do another one in 2016 or ’17, but by then my hip was giving me trouble and climbing up a ladder with a chainsaw didn’t appeal – even slightly. So I tried to get a contractor, but was let down, twice. Then I had the hip-replacement operation and pollarding slipped even further down my list of top priorities. It wasn’t until large branches starting blowing down and blocking the drive – which happened twice in 2019 and 2020 – that I was reminded of the problem. But by then we’d discovered Jason – who arrived triumphantly to the rescue in late January, 2021. And here’s a view of him at work,

Jason pollarding grossly over-grown willows near the pond. Note the large shredder/chipper in the foreground and the huge heap it produced.

Before he arrived, Jason had told me about a new shredder/chipper he had just bought which was capable of munching-up very large side-branches. It produced about a ton of chippings, which we plan to spread along the bottom of the tall hornbeam hedges that bound most of the borders. This will act as a mulch in dry summers, but it will also suppress weeds and provide a firmer surface for Jason to stand on when he trims the hedges in later July. The next picture shows what the newly pollarded trees looked like from upstairs. I’m also pleased to report that just a week or so after they were pollarded, at least one of the trees is providing a nest site for a green woodpecker. Result!

The pollarded willows on a snowy morning in early February, 2021.

Every year has its surprises. After a cold and very wet start I honestly didn’t think that the snowdrop display would amount to much. I couldn’t see how any flower could be expected to thrive in such conditions, but I was wrong. Very wrong, as it turns out. I can’t recall a better show: they have been breath-taking. And they have flowered for so long. The first blooms appeared a little bit late, maybe three weeks after Christmas, but they were flowering vigorously by the end of January and have only just started to show signs of flagging as I write, in the last two days of February. And it hasn’t just been snowdrops; aconites have been in flower for about six weeks (far longer than normal) and just like the snowdrops, the hellebores have never looked better. Daffodils don’t normally like wet seasons, but this year there are flower buds on almost every clump and the early varieties were in bloom by mid-February. And to judge by the emerging shoots, the bluebells promise to be great, too. What a season!

So here are two views of the snowdrops in the wood. These are the unimproved ‘native’ species, Galanthus nivalis. I put ‘native’ in quotes, because I suspect they were probably introduced to Britain (along with daffodils??) in Roman times, or just before.

Two views of the snowdrop display in the wood. The willow logs from the newly-trimmed pollards mark-out the corners and junctions of paths. In a few weeks they will have weathered and will blend in better. Soon they will be covered in moss and will provide shelter and protection for wood mice and shrews.

And finally, the first signs of spring! I can hardly recall a year when hazel catkins emerged so slowly. In most years we have the very first ones appear around Christmas-time and they are usually finished by the end of January. This year they are still very evident and send up clouds of pollen when I shake them, in the last days of February. Everyone enjoys hazel catkins, but my personal favourites are the catkins of the common, native, alder, Alnus glutinosa. This season they were more-or-less on time in late February and they are looking great. I took this picture on the edge of the farmyard near the muckheap. I don’t apologise for the junk in the background. I sometimes think modern farmyards are far too neat and tidy, with concrete everywhere and no grotty corners where catkins can can be admired by sheltering rats, mice, hares and wrens.

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