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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MEN: you must come clean about your naughty bits!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paths to the Past: Post-Publication Reflections


There’s always a great feeling when you open the padded envelope from your publisher and you hold your new book in your hands for the first time. Then you part the covers and invariably it falls open at a random page, and there, mid-way through paragraph two, you’ve written ‘it’s’ for ‘its’, or spelled arpeggio with one ‘g’. It’s at that stage that you spot the colour plate where captions have been reversed, or worse, duplicated: so that a fine Georgian terrace in Bath is described as ‘A limestone cliff in the Vale of Pewsey’. The inevitable result is depression, which I normally anticipate by opening a bottle of Rioja just before I take scissors to the envelope. And there’s nothing like a shared bottle of wine and few gentle words from the wife to put such problems into proportion.

But in the case of Paths to the Past I haven’t spotted any typos or cock-ups. I suppose I should add a precautionary ‘yet’ at this point, but I have re-read the book a couple of times to prepare for the various talks I’ve got to do and so far there have been no problems (touch wood…). I also find that after publication I tend to lose all interest in a new book, usually because I have to concentrate on the next project. But this time, things are a bit different and my re-reading has made me reflect more and more about landscapes and why we mustn’t lose control of them. Yes, of course we need Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in rural landscapes and Conservation Areas in the centres of our historic towns, and again, Ancient Monuments have to be Scheduled and Historic Buildings have to be Listed. All of this is excellent and is generally very well administered. BUT is does have the result that people consider these itemised views, towns, sites and monuments as the only places of any historical importance – which, of course, they aren’t.

I remember when my big book, The Making of the British Landscape came out, I was at a signing when somebody came up to me and said words to the effect: ‘I love to read about landscape history in books like yours, because we don’t have any around us. I come from south London.’ Which of course is complete and utter rubbish, especially with regard to London south of the Thames. Everywhere has history and very often it is most clearly revealed in buildings, street layouts and even railway tracks, not to mention woods, hedges and rivers. We live in an age when scholarship and expertise are increasingly held in low regard, and we run the risk of disparaging our past while some of us denigrate ‘experts’ and spout false news. I feel passionately that we must cherish our surroundings and try to regain possession of them. Too often, Planners and Developers are seen to inhabit separate universes from the rest of us. But it’s OUR past, just as much as theirs – and we must strive to acquire more democratic control over it. We can only do that if we get our facts straight. And that means acquiring the greatest gift that civilisation can bestow on anyone: knowledge – which is why I think books like Paths to the Past are needed so badly.

Phew! Glad I’ve got that off my chest..

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PATHS to the Past Launch events


9780241299982This will be a short blog post about the launch of PATHS to the Past, which is officially published on March 1st. First a couple of broadcasts you might like to hear. Both are on BBC Radio. The first is on Radio 5 Live and I’m recording it on Monday February 26th at 9.15 pm, to go out on their late night programme (don’t know when). A better bet will be on the Radio 3 ‘Free Thinking’ programme broadcast at 10.15 pm on February 28th. Thereafter it will be available as a Free Thinking podcast on the BBC website. I’ll be talking about landscapes with the poet Sean Borodale, who has just published a collection of poems about the Mendip Hills (and the caves beneath them) under the title Asylum.

I will also be doing a lecture at The British Library on the evening of March 6th. I think a few tickets are still available.

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

And then lambing starts. But afterwards I’ll be doing events at Waterstones, in Salisbury (May 3rd); the Bath Festival (May 24th) and King’s Manor, York (June 6th). And there’ll be more. I’ve got a very efficient publicist in Matt Hutchinson, at Penguin Books. But don’t worry, I’ll keep you all posted as things develop.

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My new book for Penguin: Paths to the Past. Publication date: March 1st

Just over a year ago I was approached by my Editor at Penguin, Tom Penn, about the possibility of writing something a bit shorter than my previous heavyweight book (The Making of the British Landscape), on landscapes. As it happened, he couldn’t have spoken to me at a better time because I had been rethinking my approach to the British landscape. Actually, that sounds more rational, analytical, even cold-blooded than it was. The reality was rather different. I was living a very traditional life as a sheep-farmer and gardener, yet at the same time I had my other life as a writer, archaeologist and broadcaster. I won’t say that the two parts of my life were in any real tension – because they weren’t – but they were, nonetheless, very different. More to the point, I found the contrast between them very revealing.

When I wrote my big book on landscape it dominated my life for almost five years. The farming side certainly wasn’t ignored, but it was put safely to one side in secure boxes labelled ‘lambing,’ ‘market,’ ‘tupping’ and even ‘business planning’. I would enter the box, deal with the contents single-mindedly, then firmly close the lid upon exit. That’s how I coped. But over the past ten years the different aspects of my life have come together – sometimes I think into a rich, but rather chaotic porridge – and I have begun to discover how to deal with this new complexity without using so many boxes. And that’s really what the new book is all about: a landscape with fewer boxes.

My earlier approach was to view the landscape as a magnificent artefact, almost a work of art, combined with a phenomenon of geology. The emphasis was on the big economic and social factors behind innovation and change: the Enclosure Movement, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Industrial Revolution and so forth. Almost by definition, individuals didn’t get a look-in. Everything was approached from such a broad and long-term perspective. Of course this is absolutely fine if you want to understand how entire landscapes changed over the millennia – which is something that continues to fascinate me profoundly: I have always preferred the ‘long run’ of archaeology to the event-based approach of historians. But does this contrast have to be so very clear-cut? Surely it might be possible to glimpse what individuals might have been thinking or feeling at different times, out there, in the broad chronological sweep of the evolving landscape?

The more I thought about it the more I realised that I myself had glimpsed such moments of personal revelation in one or two particular places. It wasn’t a matter of identification so much as recognition: these places – and they weren’t all as spectacular as Tintagel (although that was included) – held the clues to a deeper appreciation of what might have motivated individual people in both the recent and very distant past. Then it also came to me that one reason why such places were so personally revealing was my own knowledge, experience and education. Put another way, I don’t think you will ever get more from landscape than a sense of awe, or beauty, unless you understand something about its formation, too. And that’s one of the reasons I regret the current over-emphasis on narrowly-focused political history in schools and on television. If I have to sit through one more brain-dead ‘documentary’ where the presenter dresses-up as kings and queens, I think I will drink myself into oblivion!

Landscapes were changed because people had the motivation to do the work. That motivation gives us a glimpse into the men and women behind certain projects – and it wasn’t always just money or profit that drove them. The large extra-urban (rather than suburban) houses of football stars and other squillionaires, which conceal their gold-taps and showy vulgarity behind impenetrable external security gates and fences, are the direct equivalents of many elegant Georgian houses, which were also proclaiming their owners’ wealth and status. The contrast between the two says much about the times in which they were created. The modern house might include provision for a live-in butler, nanny or house-keeper, but the Georgian mansion had to accommodate dozens, possibly even hundreds, of poorly-paid, often illiterate servants. So which age – ours or theirs – is superior? They had the good taste, we have bling, but also a more egalitarian, better educated society.

Landscapes are about maintenance, in a way that fine art is not. A picture, a sculpture or an installation is created. Then generally speaking, that’s it: it survives or perishes on a wall, or in a gallery. But landscapes continue, because they have to be inhabited, to be lived-in. And that takes an immense amount of work. In my first blog post of the year I discussed whether I would rather see an intact original – in that instance the superb Decorated Church at Heckington, Lincs – or a building that had been added-to, changed and modified over the years. On the whole, I think I prefer the modified version. I know that architectural purists, like the great Nicolaus Pevsner, would rather tombs and memorials didn’t clutter-up church interiors, but I have to say I love them. Many times I have almost been moved to tears by the sight of an elegant young man or woman sculptured reclining, or sleeping, while below, in their coffins lie the their dry bones. Monuments show these were buildings that were used by real people. That’s also why I love many Georgian Church interiors where the painted box pews recall contemporary pubs and servants’ halls in the great houses. Indeed, many chambered tombs of the Neolithic and Bronze Age, five and six thousand years ago, make references to the interiors of contemporary houses, right down to the stone dressers and niches where people stored their dried food, salt and herbs. I love the blurring of simple distinctions that one finds in the landscape: it’s so human and easy to relate to, even thousands of years later.

Rural landscapes, and this applies most particularly to Britain, are generally not planned. Of course there are exceptions, such as the Fens where I live, but even here the planning of the landscape was frequently messed up by sudden floods and bloody-minded locals. Townscapes can be more readily planned, but they very rarely follow their creator’s original designs with any precision – which is one of the reasons I love James Craig’s Edinburgh New Town so much. His plan was exemplary – even visionary, but its execution was far from perfect. Developers had to get a return on their investments back then, just as they do today. Nothing has changed. Eventually people came to their senses and the elegant simplicity of the final addition, Charlotte Square, by no less a genius than Robert Adam, remains inspirational. And is that because of its classical beauty, or was there something else? Maybe the history and motivation of the people who commissioned it? I honestly don’t know, but I am convinced that such places must be seen within their historical contexts if we are to fully appreciate what they have to tell us.

So my latest book tries to address some of these ideas using a series of landscape snapshots – I hesitate to call them case-studies because they’re not that intense or disciplined. I got the idea for the approach when recently I visited Charles Darwin’s house at Downe (with an ‘e’), in Kent. Darwin had laid out a path around the back of Down House’s garden, where he took daily walks while he was doing his greatest research, which ultimately gave rise to On the Origin of Species (1859). Darwin was something of a hypochondriac, so his daily walks were an important part of his fitness routine. But I think there was far more to those walks than just health, and when I took a walk myself along Darwin’s Sandwalk I was soon convinced I was right. It was so peaceful: wooded, yes, but not darkly. There were views across ordinary meadows of grass. Wheat fields. In the middle distance, a cricket pitch and small pavilion. All so very ordinary and English. As I followed the great man’s twists and turns, I was gradually struck by a feeling of déja-vu. I had been there before, but not in rural Kent. I knew of another path that had been laid out for precisely the same reason: not as an exercise track, but as a place to think. But in my case, it was called the Silt Path and it meandered through our wood and eventually came into the open around the edge of our hay and cowslip meadow. The Silt Path was where I did my thinking. True, I’m no Darwin, but I do know that writing and creation require personal editorial space and the objectivity to reject weak ideas for something stronger. And you get such insights best when you take solitary strolls around your thinking path.

So that explains the title: Paths to the Past. But I should make it quite clear that the individual chapters are not about set-piece walks, but places where you can pause and ponder things that matter – and sometimes with a glass of real ale at your elbow. They are paths in the spiritual, not literal, sense. You won’t need an App that counts your paces when you visit the places in my book. In fact, I’d advise you to turn the horrid thing off. Then you can listen to the sounds of the landscape: breathe deeply – and don’t ignore the smells. Remember, landscapes must be entered, and not just observed. They’re also better experienced and not merely read about. So when you’ve finished, close the book and head outside. You couldn’t have chosen a better time of year: the early spring. Enjoy it!

The Sand Walk

The Sand Walk

The Silt Path

The Silt Path

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Welcome to 2018 (it couldn’t be worse than 2017…)

Let’s not dwell on 2017: far too much Trump and Brexit. Enough said. At the very end of October I had my hip replacement operation and afterwards I attacked the business of recovery very energetically, going for long walks, first with two crutches, then with two sticks, and finally with one stick. It was at the one stick stage, early on the morning of Sunday December 3rd. I started to drift out of the mists of deep sleep and for some reason I stretched my left leg. I don’t know why I did it (I was at best semi-conscious), but suddenly there was a sharp pain and I knew I had dislocated the hip. Maisie rose to the occasion, as I knew she would, and eventually an ambulance arrived. Meanwhile, if I made the smallest move the pain would be intense. Getting off the bed onto the stretcher-chair was the most painful experience of my entire life, and that’s despite pain killer pills and gas-and-air anaesthetic. The two ambulance men were superb. During the drive to King’s Lynn Hospital the joint must have relocated, because I was able to twitch my toes when I arrived in casualty. An hour later I could lift my foot, and after a couple of hours I could sit up. At the end of the day I could manage a few paces from my wheelchair to the car. They took an X-ray and one of the busy casualty doctors pronounced me fit, with no nerves or cartilage trapped inside the prosthetic joint. Phew!

That set me back at least a week. But by December 15th I was able to drive again – and I can’t tell you how much that lifted my morale. Independence was slowly returning. I’m writing this on January 22nd (‘Blue Monday’), which I gather is meant to be the most depressing day of the year (so some tongue-in-cheek academics have told us) and I’m feeling full of beans – and quite literally, because Maisie cooked a wonderful meal last night of lamb shank with cannellini beans (dried, but from the garden) and sprouts, in an oniony/garlic sauce. Every ingredient was from the farm, or garden – lots of taste and no plastic wrapping!

Over Christmas we relaxed and probably ate and drank rather too much. But what the hell. I did lots of walking, but less vigorously than before the dislocation. As usual we did one of Mike Jupp’s excellent 1000-piece jig-saw puzzles, I Love Autumn, which he sent us last year and very kindly signed (on the box, not individual pieces!). It was very difficult to do and I think it’s his best puzzle to date. So do buy one if you can – you certainly won’t be bored and you’ll love the details, such as the horrible drones… Need I say more?

Mike Jupp I Love Autumn

From January 1st I resolved to get back to work on my current book, which is about the Fens (surprise, surprise). And things went well: I managed to complete another two chapters, before I was overtaken by those jobs that suddenly appear when a new book is about to be launched. My latest for Penguin comes out on March 1st and I’ll discuss it here, nearer the time. But in the past few days/weeks I’ve been checking proofs and very soon I’m off to London to record the audio book, which should be fun. Incidentally, I gave up using a stick towards the end of the first week of the New Year because I was having trouble in re-establishing a limpless walk. It’s all about rhythm – which I can’t do if there’s a stick in my hand. But I have to be very careful indeed if the ground’s wet, as I don’t want to slip over and fall. I couldn’t stand that pain for a second time.

I love visiting churches and on my 73rd birthday (January 13th) we went up the road to the small market town, or large village, of Heckington. The town itself is not particularly spectacular, but several old buildings do survive and the place still retains its distinctive Lincolnshire feel and has avoided the horrible gentrification that is, alas, such a feature of so many comparably-sized towns in the Cotswolds. To be honest, I quite like it if I drive through a village and a front garden has a wrecked car in it, another is used for parking a disc-harrow, and a third is full of chickens who stray everywhere. That’s what the villages are like around where I live. They’re real. But I digress: back to the subject I’m meant to be writing about.

Maisie knew I liked visiting churches and she was also aware that I was getting a bit stir-crazy: I needed to get out and about. So she leafed through Pevsner’s Lincolnshire and came up with Heckington, which I must confess I’d seen from the outside, but only when passing through, and in a car. I still can’t understand why I had never seen it properly. Quite simply, it’s a masterpiece and I plan to revisit in the summer, when daylight is brighter, to view the interior, which was shrouded in gloom. Most English churches are an architectural mish-mash, wherein lies their charm, but every so often it is good to see one in a single style. Often single-style churches are small and either early or late, Norman or Victorian. But St. Andrew’s Church, Heckington couldn’t be more different. It was built in the early 14th century, probably in the 1320s and ‘30s, with the chancel rebuilt in the ‘40s. So it’s all in the Decorated style, which for my money is the finest of all – with the possible exception of the uniquely English late Perpendicular of places like Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, and St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, whose fan vaulting and huge windows seem to transcend mere architecture.

The interior of St. Andrew’s, with the exception of the later pews, is what King Edward III would have seen when he visited, around 1330. To give you a flavour of this superb building and the many statues and gargoyles that adorn it, I’ve included four pictures: the first of the tower and nave, the second of the south porch, the third of two gargoyles, and the fourth of the superb tracery of the East Window. Do visit of you can. Normally I agree with Simon Jenkins’ award of stars, but he gives it ****, his second-best category. I’d have given it *****.

Heckington tower GV

Heckington porch

Heckington gargoyles

Heckington East window

During the second week of January my hip was feeling better, I’d abandoned the stick and determined to get going in the garden. I did various mainly small jobs, then on January 18th the sun came out (a rare event this January) and revealed the best display of hazel catkins I can recall. The Nut Walk looked stunning and if the prolific catkins are anything to go by, there’ll be a big crop of nuts in the autumn. Having taken the photo, I picked up my secateurs and loppers and began cutting-back the pleached limes – a job I normally like to get done over Christmas. It felt so good to be getting back to work again.

Hazel catkins


Then, just three days after I started work on the limes, we were hit by a vicious series of snow and sleet storms. They ended in time for Blue Monday, which made me, and surely all gardeners, feel very bright and chirpy. I hope you have a wonderful 2018.

Snow Jan 21st

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Suburbia: Taking a Different View

It’s so easy to let one’s mind fossilize. Over the years one accumulates opinions and these tend to become more fixed and rigid with time. And I don’t know how others feel, but I find that in these days when the politics surrounding the Brexit debate and Trump’s often nauseating Tweets seem to dominate all aspects of the news, that my opinions have gradually shifted leftwards. I don’t think this shift owes much to rationality, but is more a natural reaction to lies, overweening ambition, arrogance and spin. There is something so deeply repellent about the tone of modern political debate. So it was nice to open a book and find my fixed views on a subject that has long been a part of my life were being challenged and changed, not by physical and emotional revulsion, but by fine writing, observation and above all else, by humanity. It has been so refreshing.

Persistent followers of this blog may recall that four and a half years ago I wrote a post about a book that Maisie lent me. It was by the playwright and novelist R.C. Sherriff who is still principally remembered for his play Journey’s End (1929), which was based around his letters home from the trenches of WW1. The book I discussed back in 2013 was The Fortnight in September, which was published in 1931. I loved that modest account of a family’s seaside holiday in the inter-war years and I also liked the look and shape of the book itself, which was republished with great care and obvious affection by Persephone Books. Maisie often orders books from Persephone; indeed, we have been known to call in at their offices and bookshop near Covent Garden, when I have to visit my own publisher, Allen Lane/Penguin, nearby in the Strand. The book Maisie has just lent me was Persephone’s republication of another R.C. Sherriff novel, this time a little longer than A Fortnight in September, which appeared five years later, in 1936. The book in question is simply titled Greengates. And if your Christmas plans are still lacking a good read (because the TV listings look dire – endless repeats – and the News is barely tolerable), then I strongly suggest you order a copy immediately. I can promise that you won’t be disappointed. I’m even thinking about dipping into it again, but first I must go through the page-proofs of my new book for Penguin, which will be published in the New Year.

My interest in landscape history remains with me and I can never take a train journey without trying to work out the history of a town’s recent development, just by looking at the streets and houses around the station. That’s one of the reasons I like taking slow trains: you get to see places – and people. Some expresses go so fast these days that you might as well be on a plane. I remember being fascinated by the history of Metroland when I was researching The Making of the British Landscape. Metroland was the blanket name given to the inner London suburbs, principally in Buckinghamshire, that were built as a direct result of London underground’s Metropolitan Railway being extended out of town. Most of this happened in the 1930s, and I published a map of the new urban – or rather suburban sprawl – that was a direct result of London’s rapid pre-war growth. And of course I will always remember the late John Betjeman’s great TV documentary film (1973) and poem Metroland – both of which influenced me considerably. Here’s the map I published in The Making of the British Landscape:


The unchecked development of London’s suburbs in the 1930s was ultimately to lead to the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which introduced the much needed (and today more than ever before!) idea of the Green Belt and which brought an end to the one house- or bungalow-wide ribbon development, which did so much to hide and then to destroy the rural landscape around London and other large cities. Urban sprawl, however, tends to grow relentlessly and as a lifelong countryman I have to say I have watched in horror as the fields and meadows I played in as a child have vanished under new housing estates. In the 1950s most of the houses seemed to be council houses and I can remember my uncle, who was the big landowner in the Hertfordshire village where I grew up, even gave land for a council estate. There was a wide appreciation that people who had sacrificed so much during the War deserved something better. It was a variant of the ‘Homes for Heroes’ theme that prevailed in the 1920s, after WW1.Then in the 1970s, things began to change: in 1980 Maggie Thatcher introduced the tenants’ right to buy council homes; in the following two decades, affordable council-style homes became less common and instead we saw the arrival of larger, more luxurious buildings – culminating in some of the massive six- and seven-bedroomed “Executive Homes” that are now such a feature of the scene in both rural and urban fringe settings. Incidentally, these horrid houses have multiple garages for spotless Range Rovers, but never deign to have vegetable gardens – how weird!

So over the years I have developed a rather simplistic view of housing development: green fields = good: houses = bad – which of course is ludicrous, but that’s what happened. More recently we’ve seen the appearance of affordable housing in several of the villages near where we live in rural south Lincolnshire and I have to say it’s fine. In fact, we need more of it. Much more, if our rural communities are to continue to thrive and not to become expensive dormitories for second-homers and rich retirees. So what about the great mass of younger people who are now desperate for somewhere to live: how does my rather unbalanced view of the current housing situation regard them? And this is where R.C. Sheriff’s Greengates comes in. Sheriff was writing about a time when developers invariably built their own houses and yes, they earned good money, but not vast fortunes. There was little incentive to buy up land and hoard it for future – even more profitable – development. All in all, things were a bit saner. There were fewer people with financial interests, no third parties were doubling ground-rents on leaseholds. And purchasers were more naïve: they viewed their new homes as somewhere to live and not as a potentially very risky investment – which must take 80% of the pleasure out of house purchase nowadays. I found it a tiny bit scary even when I started house-buying in 1980, but that was nothing to what it must be like today.

Greengates is about a recently retired couple who buy and move into a new house on a new development – part of a Metroland-like scheme, in once wooded countryside. It’s precisely the sort of development I came to dislike so strongly when I was researching into the later chapters of The Making of the British Landscape. But Sheriff describes the couple and their excitement at the prospect of their new home so sympathetically that I actually found myself on the side of the developer. He may have been a bit of a greedy capitalist (and he certainly hadn’t become a builder for philanthropic reasons alone), but he must have been aware that he was giving people pleasure and providing them with hope for the future.

So were there any lessons here for the future? Only one that I could spot: that profit should not be the only objective of people in business. To listen to some right-wing Tory politicians today, you might think it was the be-all and end-all of life. But it’s a view that is so patronising and so demeaning. Most decent people (and that includes all of the many business-men and -women I have met over the years) would want to be remembered for more than just the profits they earned: for the employment they provided and yes, for their many satisfied customers, too. Somehow we need to inject more of that spirit, that ethos, into the cut-throat world of house-building and property development. It might lead to better, more enlightened, Planning, too. And who knows, maybe we’ll even see the re-appearance of vegetable gardens!

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Welcome to my new left hip joint!

Somebody wise once said that you’ve got to be strong to grow old – and how right he or she was. I’d also add: not just strong, but fit and determined, too. It further helps if you can draw on the resources of our wonderful National Health Service, to whose health I shall drink a real or imaginary glass of Prosecco or Cava every day – until my liver packs up. I went under the knife in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at Kings Lynn on the morning of Sunday October 29th. Before the operation, the anaesthetist explained that I could opt for complete oblivion or a spinal anaesthetic, where I’d feel no pain, but I’d also be aware of what was going on around me. She went on to explain that the spinal block option meant a shorter and less ‘foggy’ period of grogginess after the operation. All of that made sense, and besides, I wanted to experience what was about to happen to me. It’s not every day that one has such a major operation.

Before the operation I asked one of the surgeons if I could have a look at the joint they were removing. I explained that as an archaeologist I had excavated dozens of skeletons and it wasn’t often that one gets given the chance to examine one’s own bones. He asked me what I was interested in and I said it was the ball joint at the head of the thigh bone, or femur. I’d dug lots of them and I wanted to see what mine looked like, and more particularly what the damage, which had showed up quite clearly on the X-ray photo, looked like, in the flesh, as it were. I think my request surprised him, but he smiled and said he’d see what he could do.

Then I was wheeled into the operating theatre and things became a little, but only a little, groggy. At one point I was aware that somebody was hammering something hard into something a bit softer. It sounded remarkably like the noise I make when I’m splitting wood with a metal wedge – or maybe hammering a chisel into a block of wood. It was as if they were hammering a tapering nail into my femur – which was more or less what they were doing, except that the tapering nail was my new prosthetic joint and the precise sound – the precision – of the tapping was important because the surgeon needed to extend my thigh bone by 10mm, to make good the wear-and-tear caused by the worn hip. So he mustn’t knock it in too far. In the event, he got it spot-on and I can now proudly report that both my legs are precisely the same length. Tap tap.

After the operation, the surgeon I’d approached earlier asked me if I still wanted to see the head of my femur. Although I was still a little groggy, I almost jumped off the bed. Yes please, I really did want to see it! He reached down into a small glass beaker or bowl and produced something that I immediately recognised for what it was, but I was surprised (a) because it was smaller than I’d expected and (b) because of its pale pinkish colour. I know it’s completely illogical, but I thought he was going to produce something yellowish brown – the colour of bones on archaeological sites. He brought it across to me and tapped the ball joint with the side of a pair of forceps and it made a soft, almost soggy sort of sound – like he was tapping the outside of an apple. He explained that the soft/soggy surface was a layer of cartilage that covered the bone and lubricated the joint. Then he turned the bone around and immediately I could see a small (little fingernail-sized) shiny area where the cartilage had worn through, exposing the shiny, pink, bone surface beneath. The surgeon tapped the worn area and it made a hard, sharp sound – just like bones on an excavation, when tapped with a trowel. When I saw that worn patch I could see why my hip had become so incredibly painful in the months leading up to the operation.

I seemed to recover quite quickly, although I did collapse the following day when my blood pressure suddenly dipped when I got out of bed. I got over that and things improved so that by Tuesday I had passed the stairs climbing test and was getting ready to be sent home. They then removed the catheter that had been inserted for the operation, and asked me to have a pee. They gave me water – lots of it – and I imagined Niagara Falls and pints of foaming bitter, but to no avail. Nothing flowed. Sahara not Niagara. I wasn’t allowed home. The next day I developed complications: diarrhoea, gastric wind, vomiting, followed by dehydration and low blood pressure. Horrible – and it lasted for four days. After ten days they let me out. I now do my physiotherapy exercises religiously three times a day and take long walks every morning and afternoon. I haven’t taken a pain relief pill for two weeks and although my guts are still recovering, the hip feels fine. In two days’ time I’ll see the surgeon who did the operation for my final check in Kings Lynn. The wound is healing well and I’m already feeling VASTLY improved. Frankly, he and his team worked a miracle and I’m so grateful to them. Long live the NHS!

One final, rather sad, memory. The other beds in the Orthopaedic ward were occupied by four men in their 70s and 80s. All had strong Norfolk accents and three had worked their lives on farms. One morning one man leant back on his pillows and said to nobody in particular: ‘Well, we was all fooled. Looks like nobody knew what was happening.’ ‘You’re right,’ somebody replied. A long silence followed this. I knew from earlier conversations that they’d all voted for Brexit and were starting to regret what they’d done. Let’s hope the NHS survives the inevitable chaos that must lie ahead. The Brexit split is very profound and deep and will take decades to repair: I bitterly regret the cold-blooded way the right-wing media duped honest people into destroying their children and grand-childrens’ future. And believe me, those elderly men had started to realise just what they had done. So sad. So very sad.

Posted in My life | Tagged , , , , ,